Congress Grills FBI Chief Over Apple Showdown

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FBI Director Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FBI Chief James Comey appeared in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to, well, from the looks of it, demonstrate the FBI’s inability to maintain a consistent position on — or even, it would seem, basic knowledge of — the question of iPhone encryption and security.

Comey made a series of baffling statements, saying that Apple needs to let the FBI into their “back door” to prevent others from doing so (uh?) and claiming he’d heard from every available expert, when many say they haven’t even been contacted. At one point, the top domestic law-enforcement officer in the country wondered aloud if he should just kidnap Apple engineers and force them to write the software he wants.

He admitted, against previous statements, that an FBI–San Bernardino County decision to change the password on Syed Farook’s iCloud account was a mistake. Additionally, potentially proving that the federal government has been lying about only wanting to unlock one phone, Comey said that “of course” this case will be used as a precedent to force other technology companies to open their back doors to the government, should they win. As long as the cards are on the table, I guess.

As Representative John Conyers said at the hearing, “I would be deeply disappointed if it turns out the government is found to be exploiting a national tragedy to pursue a change in the law,” referencing an August email from Robert Litt, the top government lawyer for the Director of National Intelligence that read, in part, “[Although] the legislative environment is very hostile today, it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

The members of the Committee were, at times, openly hostile to Comey: “What concerns me … is that in the middle of an ongoing Congressional debate on this subject, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would ask a federal magistrate to give them the special access to secure products that this committee, this Congress, and the administration have so far refused to provide,” Conyers said.

Comey also said that the NSA had attempted to gain access to the phone and failed — odd because, according to iOS security expert Jonathan Zdziarski, the NSA is more than capable of hacking into the phone. “Comey’s ego has made this such a high-profile case that the NSA will not use this on a probably useless phone. They don’t want to publicize that they have these tools. If this was done in secret, they might have gotten into the phone right now,” he said in an interview conducted before the Congressional hearing.