Senior Official Stresses Feds' Need to Unlock San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone

"We have an obligation to act as quickly as possible," the official said.

ByABC News
February 24, 2016, 8:36 PM

— -- A senior government official stressed the federal government's need to unlock an iPhone left behind by one of the San Bernardino shooters following an exclusive interview Apple CEO Tim Cook did with ABC News.

The FBI has called on Apple to help unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 and injured 22 at a holiday party in December. The FBI's attempts to crack the passcode have been stymied because Apple phone systems have a function that automatically erases the access key and renders the phone "permanently inaccessible" after 10 failed attempts.

Of Cook’s suggestion that Congress should resolve the thorny issues at play in this dispute rather than the courts, the official told ABC News that would take too much time and that the investigation remains urgent in part because the killers were inspired by ISIS. He said co-conspirators could still be out there and there could be information on the phones about future attacks.

“ISIS is a dramatic threat to the people of the United States,” the official said. “We have an obligation to act as quickly as possible ... shame on us if we don’t pursue it."

As far as Cook’s assertion that this case is the gateway for a "backdoor" or master key that could impact hundreds of millions of Apple users, the official said this is not about mass surveillance. The FBI wants Apple to develop a way into the phone that will be known only to Apple, the official said.

The official acknowledged scores of police agencies will be coming with similar requests, but the official added that each police agency must convince a court to give them a warrant every time and that the process would be supervised by courts as it has been for decades.

Cook also suggested the government erred in not contacting Apple before resetting the iCloud password associated with Farook’s phone. That eliminated the opportunity for investigators to back up the phone and access the phone’s stored data.

The government official said even if the backup had been successful, the iCloud would not have given them access to all the data on the device. The need to access the phone would still be the same because there would be data that could only be retrieved from the phone itself.

Mistake or not, "we’d still be asking for access to that phone,” the official said.

The official added investigators believe Farook may have disabled the iCloud backup six weeks prior to the attack to cover his trail.

Government officials told ABC News they had been working with Apple for months before the San Bernardino attack to try to resolve how investigators could get access to data on Apple devices that were a part of another ongoing investigation. Apple has received at least fifteen court orders compelling the company to assist in extracting data from an iPhone over the past five months, including the San Bernardino case, according to court records unsealed this week.