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U.S. Calls Pensacola Attack Terrorism; Pressures Apple Over Gunman’s Locked Phones

U.S. Calls Pensacola Attack Terrorism; Pressures Apple Over Gunman’s Locked Phones

Attorney General

William Barr

called the December attack by a Saudi aviation student that killed three people at a Florida Navy base an act of terrorism, escalating pressure on

Apple Inc.

to help unlock a pair of the gunman’s iPhones that could provide more information about his radicalization.

Mr. Barr called on Apple to find a way to crack the encrypted phones in a high-profile request that ramped up a long-simmering fight between tech firms and the government over how to best balance digital security with the imperatives of criminal investigations.

Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a member of the Saudi air force who was training with the U.S. military, posted anti-U.S. messages on social media about two hours before he opened fire in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6, Mr. Barr said Monday. The gunfire lasted about 15 minutes before Lt. Alshamrani was killed by responding sheriff’s deputies.

During the attack, Lt. Alshamrani made statements critical of U.S. military actions overseas and fired shots at a picture of President Trump, officials said. In the weeks beforehand, the gunman used social media to blame the U.S. for crimes against Muslims, officials said, issuing a warning on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that “the countdown has started.”

Investigators have found no evidence that Lt. Alshamrani had co-conspirators in the U.S. or that he was inspired by one specific terrorist group, Federal Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director David Bowdich said. The FBI interviewed more than 500 of his friends, classmates and other associates, and analyzed more than 42 terabytes of digital information, he said.

But Justice Department officials said only a look at data and communications on the gunman’s phones could help them say for certain whether he discussed his plans with others.

Mr. Barr, stepping up a long-running fight between law-enforcement agencies and Silicon Valley over access to encrypted data, said: “This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence.” He said that Apple had provided no “substantive assistance” getting into the two phones, which are locked with unknown pass codes and encrypted.

Photos of two Apple iPhones that Attorney General William Barr said belonged to the gunman are displayed by a Justice Department staff member.


jim lo scalzo/epa/Shutterstock

Apple, in a statement late Monday, said it always worked cooperatively with law enforcement to help in investigations and that it rejected Mr. Barr’s characterization that it hadn’t provided substantial assistance.

“Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing,” an Apple spokesman said. In response to several legal requests, the company quickly provided a “wide variety of information” when first contacted by law enforcement last month, “including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” the spokesman said.

Only last week did the FBI notify Apple that more assistance was required and alerted the company of a second phone investigators couldn’t access, the spokesman said, adding that “early outreach is critical to accessing information and finding additional options.”

The Justice Department under Mr. Barr has increasingly highlighted the difficulties investigators face in accessing encrypted communications for suspects ranging from terrorists to child predators. Apple and other tech firms have said they help authorities wherever possible, but that creating vulnerabilities in their encrypted products would jeopardize broader internet security and make users less safe from cybercriminals.

“It’s very important for us to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died,” Mr. Barr said on Monday.

An undated FBI photo shows Mohammed Alshamrani.


FBI/Associated Press

New details about the gunman’s views came as the U.S. said it was expelling 21 Saudi military students from a training program and immediately sending them back to Saudi Arabia. The probe found no evidence that the students helped plan the attack, but many of them had contact with child pornography and almost all of them possessed jihadist or anti-U.S. material, Mr. Barr said.

None of the students face federal charges, but all were expected to be returned to their home country by later Monday.

The attorney general’s public call came a week after the FBI’s general counsel sent a letter to Apple asking for assistance in accessing material on Lt. Alshamrani’s phones. Apple and other companies receive requests for help frequently from the FBI, but the use of a formal letter was seen as unusual.

Officials said investigators secured a court order within a day of the shooting but waited a month to contact Apple because they were trying to exhaust other options to attempt to get into the phones, which the gunman had damaged, firing a shot into one of them.

A Justice Department official said Monday that Apple hadn’t yet told the department whether company employees were able to get into the phones themselves. But senior Justice and FBI officials told congressional staff on a phone briefing Monday morning that there was nothing Apple could do to unlock the iPhones in question, according to two congressional aides familiar with the call. The officials criticized Apple for not having created a method for doing so, the aides said.

The news conference was Mr. Barr’s latest attempt to apply pressure on technology companies for widely adopting encryption standards that law-enforcement officials have long complained make it difficult for them to unlock digital data belonging to a criminal suspect, even with a warrant.

“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Mr. Barr said. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is under way.”

Mr. Barr’s comments could set the stage for a showdown like the one that took place during the final year of the Obama administration when the Justice Department tried to force Apple to create a software update that would break the privacy protections of the iPhone to gain access to a phone linked to a dead gunman responsible for a 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

Apple refused to comply, and the FBI found a third party that was able to unlock the device; the conflict was largely viewed as a publicity win for the iPhone maker.

The government suffered another setback in 2018, when the FBI disclosed it had accidentally inflated public statistics about the number of encrypted devices investigators were unable to break open. A new estimate has never been provided.

Because U.S. and Saudi officials missed signs of Lt. Alshamrani’s possible extremist views, the shooting drew attention to screening procedures and security concerns surrounding the more than 5,000 international military service members, including approximately 850 Saudis, who come to the U.S. each year for training. Military students who train in the U.S. are chosen by their home countries.

The Defense Department is expected to announce findings of a Pentagon review of its procedures as soon as this week. Among the conclusions, according to defense officials, is that U.S. officials now will examine the social-media history of training candidates as part of the review process.

Defense Secretary

Mark Esper

said Sunday that he already has ordered more stringent screening.

The shooting happened during a period of elevated tension between Washington and Riyadh, but Mr. Barr said the royal government had been cooperative in the investigation and assured him Saudi officials would review the students’ cases under their military justice and criminal code.

While Mr. Barr has repeatedly lamented the phone technology issue in speeches before, this was the first time he prominently linked it to an individual case. But Mr. Barr notably declined to say whether the Justice Department is considering seeking a court order to compel Apple to help authorities unlock the devices linked to the Pensacola shooter, which are an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 5. Former officials have said leadership at both the Justice Department and FBI appear reticent to descend into another drawn-out legal dispute.

Similarly, there has been little appetite in Congress to try to legislate the “Going Dark” issue in a manner that would force companies to build weaknesses into their products.

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com and Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

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