FBI Again Finds Itself Unable to Unlock a Gunman's Phone

FBI officials investigate the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Eric Gay/AP

The Texas church massacre is providing a familiar frustration for law enforcement: FBI agents are unable to unlock the gunman's encrypted cellphone to learn what evidence it might hold.

But while heart-wrenching details of the rampage that left more than two dozen people dead might revive the debate over the balance of digital privacy rights and national security, it's not likely to prompt change anytime soon.

The gunman who killed 26 at a Texas church had a “mission” and a “purpose,” law enforcement officials said. The gunman was shot twice before shooting himself in the head, officials said.

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)

Congress has not shown a strong appetite for legislation that would force technology companies to help the government break into encrypted phones and computers. And the fiery public debate surrounding the FBI's legal fight with Apple Inc. has largely faded since federal authorities announced they were able to access a locked phone in a terror case without the help of the technology giant.

As a candidate, Donald Trump called on Americans to boycott Apple unless it helped the FBI hack into the phone, but he hasn't been as vocal as president.

Still, the issue re-emerged Tuesday, when Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio division, said agents had been unable to get into the cellphone belonging to Devin Patrick Kelley, who slaughtered much of the congregation in the middle of a Sunday service.

"It highlights an issue you've all heard about before. With the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryption, law enforcement is increasingly not able to get into these phones," Combs told reporters, saying the device was being flown to an FBI lab for analysis.

Twenty-six people were killed after a gunman opened fire in a Texas church. Victims ranged from 18 months to 77 years old.

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)

Combs didn't identify the make or model, but a U.S. official, who was briefed by law enforcement but was not authorized to discuss the case and did so on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press it was an Apple iPhone.

"We're working very hard to get into that phone, and that will continue until we find an answer," Combs said.

Apple said Wednesday it had offered the FBI technical advice, even though the agency had not requested its assistance.

In a statement, Apple also assured the FBI that it would expedite responses to any legal process the bureau sends the company.

Here is what we know about Devin Kelley, the gunman responsible for the deadliest shooting in Texas history.

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)

Combs was telegraphing a longstanding frustration of the FBI, which claims encryption has stymied investigations of everything from sex crimes against children to drug cases, even if they obtain a warrant for the information. Agents have been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices — more than 6,900 phones, computers and tablets — that they tried to access in less than a year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month.

The issue also vexed Wray's predecessor, James Comey, who spoke before Congress and elsewhere about the bureau's inability to access digital devices. But the Obama White House never publicly supported legislation that would have forced technology companies to give the FBI a back door to encrypted information, leaving Comey's hands tied to propose a specific legislative fix.

Security experts generally believe such encryption backdoors are a terrible idea that could expose a vast amount of private, business and government data to hackers and spies. That's because those backdoor keys would work for bad guys as well as good guys — and the bad guys would almost immediately target them for theft, and might even be able to recreate them from scratch.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took aim at Silicon Valley's methods for protecting privacy during a speech last month, saying Trump's Justice Department would be more aggressive in seeking information from technology companies. He took a harder line than his predecessors but stopped short of saying what specific steps the administration might take.

Witnesses and the good Samaritans who chased a gunman describe the scene and how they reacted in the moments after Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people at a Sutherland Springs church in Texas.

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)

Washington has proven incapable of solving a problem that an honest conversation could fix, said David Hickton, a former U.S. attorney who now directs a cyberlaw institute at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We wait for a mass disaster to sharpen the discussion about this, when we should have been talking about it since San Bernardino," he said. "Reasonable people of good will could resolve this problem. I don't think it's dependent on the political winds or who is the FBI director. It's begging for a solution."

Even so, the facts of the church shooting may not make it the most powerful case against warrant-proof encryption. When the FBI took Apple to court in February 2016 to force it to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's phone, investigators believed the device held clues about whom the couple communicated with and where they may have traveled.

But Combs didn't say what investigators hoped to retrieve from Kelley's phone, and investigators already have ample information about his motive. Authorities in Texas say the church shooting was motivated by the gunman's family troubles, rather than terrorism, and investigators have not said whether they are seeking possible co-conspirators.

About two dozen people died when a gunman opened fire at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. The community of 400 is 20 miles from San Antonio.

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)

Investigators may have other means to get the information they seek. If the Texas gunman backed up his phone online, they can get a copy of that with a legal order — usually a warrant. They can also get warrants for any accounts he had at server-based internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

In the California case, the FBI ultimately broke into the phone by paying an unidentified vendor for a hacking tool to access the phone without Apple's help, averting a court battle.

Photos: Tight-Knit Community Mourns 26 Killed in Church

Former federal prosecutor Joseph DeMarco, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of groups that supported the Justice Department against Apple, said he was hopeful the case would spur fresh discussion. If not by itself, he said, the shooting could be one of several cases that prompt the Justice Department to take other technology companies to court.

"Eventually, the courts will rule on this or a legislative fix will be imposed," he said. "Eventually, the pressure will mount."

Frank Pomeroy, pastor of the First Baptist Church, and his wife Sherri mourned their 14-year-old daughter killed by a gunman at the church on Sunday morning. Annabelle Pomeroy was one of the 26 people gunned down by 26-year-old Devin Kelley. 

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)


Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles and Matt O'Brien in Boston contributed to this report.

President Donald Trump blamed "mental health problems" for the Texas church shooting in Sutherland Springs that killed over two dozen people Sunday morning. "This isn't a 'guns' situation," Trump said at a joint presser with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

(Published Monday, Nov. 6, 2017)