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Attorney General William P. Barr Announces Updates to the Findings of the Criminal Investigation into the December 2019 Shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning.  I am joined today by FBI Director Chris Wray, and we are here to discuss significant developments in the FBI’s investigation of the December 6 shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station that killed three U.S. sailors and severely wounded eight other Americans.

Four months ago, I announced that this shooting was an act of terrorism.  I also publicly asked Apple to help us access the locked contents of the two iPhones belonging to the deceased terrorist Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani.  It was clear at that time that the phones were likely to contain valuable information.  Indeed, Alshamrani attempted to destroy both phones, even going so far as to disengage from the gunfight long enough to fire a bullet into one. 

Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders, supported by probable cause, authorizing the FBI to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation.  The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in.  We asked Apple for assistance and so did the President.  Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones.  Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user — in this case, the terrorist — could gain access to their contents.             

Today, I am pleased to announce that, thanks to the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians, the FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani’s phones.  The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States.  We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months, and days leading up to the attack.

Indeed, the information from the phones has already proven invaluable in protecting the American people.  A counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen.  We will not hesitate to act against those who harm Americans.     

I would now like to turn the podium over to Director Wray, who will provide further information and an update on the FBI’s investigation.

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Thank you, Director Wray.  Thank you for the outstanding work of the men and women of the FBI who stand on the ramparts protecting the American people.   

While the FBI’s hard work has led to an important breakthrough in this case that should be celebrated, I must also express my great disappointment that it took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should be easily and quickly accessible with a court order. 

Apple made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in such a way that only the user can unlock the contents no matter the circumstances.  In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases, where the user is a violent criminal, human trafficker, or child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable. 

Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs.  Under our nation’s long-established constitutional principles, where a court authorizes a search for evidence of a crime, an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader needs of public safety.  There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security.  Striking this balance should not be left to corporate boardrooms.  It is a decision to be made by the American people through their representatives.

Privacy and public safety are not mutually exclusive.  We are confident that technology companies are capable of building secure products that protect user information and, at the same time, allow for law enforcement access when permitted by a judge — as Apple had done willingly for many years, and others still do today.

Many of the technology companies that advocate most loudly for warrant-proof encryption in the name of privacy rights are, at the same time, willing to accommodate authoritarian regimes when it serves their business interests.  For example, it has been widely reported that Apple has worked with both the Communist Party of China and the Russian regime to relocate data centers to enable bulk surveillance by those governments.  Apple also has reportedly disabled features and applications on iPhones used by pro-democracy advocates, thereby facilitating censorship and oppression.  If technology companies like Apple are willing to oblige the demands of authoritarian regimes, they certainly have no excuse for failing to cooperate with rule-of-law nations that respect civil liberties and privacy rights, and have judicial safeguards.

The developments in this case demonstrate the need for a legislative solution.  The truth is that we needed luck, in addition to ingenuity, to get into the phones this time.  There is no guarantee that we will be successful again or that a delay of four months (or longer) will not have significant consequences for the safety of Americans.  In addition, the costs in time and money of devising alternative methods of accessing encrypted information can be enormous.  This is not a scalable solution.  Right now, across the nation, there are many phones, both at the federal and state level, that law enforcement still cannot unlock despite having court authorization.  As commercial encryption becomes even more sophisticated, our odds of success diminish with each passing year.  We cannot do our jobs when companies put the ability to defeat court-authorized searches in the hands of terrorists and criminals.

When combating threats to our homeland, we need American tech leaders to work with us, not against us.  Over the past year, I have repeatedly asked tech companies to work with us to provide better solutions.  Unfortunately, no progress has been made.  For the safety and security of our citizens, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

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