Islamic terrorist organization al-Qaida’s recent claim of responsibility for the fatal Dec. 6 attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola amplifies the need for law enforcement to have access to content of cellphones used criminally, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said in a Wednesday congressional hearing.
In the meantime, Gaetz’s office is working with local and federal officials to determine the best way to proceed given cellphone manufacturer Apple’s refusal thus far to unlock phones used by Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, the shooter in the Dec. 6 incident.
The attack left three people dead and eight injured before Alshamrani, a foreign flight student at NAS Pensacola, was fatally shot by an Escambia County sheriff’s deputy. In the wake of the shooting, the U.S. military instituted tougher vetting of foreign military students like Alshamrani, who come to the United States to learn about American military equipment.
In questioning FBI Director Christopher Wray in Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, Gaetz — whose district includes NAS Pensacola — suggested that “given the fact that recently, al-Qaida Yemen has taken responsibility for the terrorist attack in my community, it would seem to elevate our need to have access to those communications devices and tools.”
Wray agreed, and in responding to Gaetz, said that Alshamrani had shot one of his cellphones during the attack, presumably to keep law-enforcement officials from discovering its contents.
“… (W)hile people were coming at him, and he was coming at them, (Alshamrani) took the time to shoot one of his own phones, to destroy it … ,” Wray said.
Wray went on to tell the committee that, despite the damage, FBI technicians were able to reconstruct the phone. While that provided access “from a technical perspective,” Wray said, the agency couldn’t decipher the phone’s content, due to the encryption (encoding applied to keep content private) placed on the phone by its manufacturer, Apple.
“… (W)e don’t have meaningful access to the content of that phone,” Wray said. “… So whatever it was that he was trying to prevent us all from seeing, we don’t know.”
Wray said the FBI is “currently engaged with Apple, hoping to try to see if we can get better help from them to try and get access to the contents of that phone.”
Neither a phone call nor an email to Apple from the Daily News had received a response as of Wednesday afternoon.
Asked by Gaetz whether there is “meaningful legislation that the Congress should consider” to help law enforcement gain access to cellphones in a way that is workable for technology companies like Apple, Wray simply stressed the need for some type of resolution, although he expressed a preference for legislative action.
“Whether it’s done by legislation, or by the companies doing it voluntarily, I think we have to find a solution,” Wray said. “This problem is real. It’s now. I hear about it from law enforcement from every state in the country all the time.”
The FBI supports encryption, Wray said, but at the same time, he added, “we also believe that law enforcement has to have lawful access … or we’re not going to be able to protect people.”
In effect, Wray said, not taking action will mean that “the hard-working men and women of law enforcement,in Pensacola and everywhere else, are blind.”
In that light, Wray said, “… I think these are decisions that should be made by the American people through their elected representatives, not through one company making a business decision on behalf of all of us.”
In other developments Wednesday, Wray told Gaetz and the committee that lessons learned in the NAS Pensacola shooting include the importance of ensuring that U.S. military officials “get adequate information from our foreign partners, and that they do the diligence that often they’re in the best position to do on the people before they come our way.”
As Gaetz’s time for questioning Wray ended, the congressman expressed a hope that, as work on vetting and cellphone issues moves forward, “the FBI will work with my office, because my community is deeply vested in these questions now … .”
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