Is the FBI Truly Helpless in the Battle Against Apple?

The FBI is pleading helplessness in its fight against Apple. Please, pass the tissue box. We are expected to believe that this well-heeled government agency is suddenly without clout and influence. Methinks they dost protest too much! Perhaps they’ve already tapped the NSA, only to be rebuffed because they aren’t stealthy enough for the NSA’s taste.

Or worse, they crave the limelight of the public arena while the NSA works best when lurking in the shadows.The FBI prefers grandstanding, aiming to be the center of attention while the NSA operates at the margins, occupying the periphery. Some experts have even opined that the FBI’s hubris prevents it from reaching out to the NSA. This article will explore other possibilities.

The NSA, it should be noted, has been working for nearly a decade specifically to find ways to hack into Apple devices., so it could presumably help the FBI crack the code of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. The questions: Why won’t it, and have they been asked for help and declined? Wouldn’t it be ironic, or at least, poetic justice, if it was the latter, and the reason was to protect national security? According to NSA Director, Adm. Mike Rogers, the agency has assisted the FBI in the San Bernardino shooting concerning metadata records, but not content. Could they have done more?

The answer is not an easy one, especially in the nearly three years since NSA contractor, Edward Snowden made his momentous revelations, which took the NSA out of the shadows into the spotlight. Also, the mission of the NSA is largely a foreign-focused one, with little oversight, and certainly not burdened with the niceties of warrants. Because, many experts say, the agency has the best code-cracking capabilities in the world, it understandably doesn’t want to make public the capabilities it possesses.

The NSA is tasked with securing the government’s most vital secrets and obtaining those of other countries, and wishes to protect this franchise from the public scrutiny that would certainly come with any overt alliance with the FBI. So we can probably dismiss the notion that the NSA tried to help the FBI, but came up short. What might be some other explanations for the NSA sitting out this spat?

It’s possible that one reason for the NSA’s reluctance to join the scrum is that its mandate prevents it from doing so.  Post 9/11, there has been more cooperation among government agencies, but secrecy shrouds just about all of them, and turf wars still exist, though no laws currently prohibit collaboration. A more plausible scenario is that the glory-hounds at the FBI don’t want the NSA’s help, because this would not set the sweeping precedent the FBI covets for use in the dozen or so other such cases in the pipeline. Going to the NSA for help this time would augur future trips to them with  hat-in-hand. That is not a pleasant thought to contemplate for the image-conscious agency.

Lost in the speculation of FBI/NSA complicity (or lack of it) is the possibility that the FBI’s actions are simply a Trojan Horse, the tip of the spear for a covert White House attempt to alter the privacy landscape, as it has so successfully done under President Obama without action on legislation by Congress. The FBI may simply be doing the bidding of the worst administration on privacy matters in history.  The House Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, expressed just that opinion saying during a hearing on Tuesday that,

I would be deeply disappointed if it turns out that the government is found to be exploiting a national tragedy to pursue a change in the law.

It wouldn’t be the first time this President has sought to make changes without the consent of Congress, making this just another means of initiating an Executive Order, but without all the fanfare that accompanied previous actions. NSA help or not, this situation has big privacy ramifications, and bears watching.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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One response to “Is the FBI Truly Helpless in the Battle Against Apple?

  1. Stan, great blog. I am a bit surprised that the FBI didn’t ever find the password. I figured they would look through security films and find the guy imputing his password. But, maybe the terrorist was too clever for that.

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