The FBI did its best to drag Apple to court, pushing it to create a backdoor in Apple devices in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. It now appears that the bureau wasn't even trying to crack the iPhone in question when it said that the agency had no other option but to ask Apple for help. According to a recent report by the Department of Justice, the FBI unit tasked with breaking into phones hadn't even sought help from their partners when it filed a court brief demanding Apple's help.
The report titled "A Special Inquiry Regarding the Accuracy of FBI Statements Concerning its Capabilities to Exploit an iPhone Seized During the San Bernardino Terror Attack Investigation" adds that an FBI department chief knew that a vendor was "almost 90 percent finished" with a cracking solution.
FBI wanted to use the San Bernardino shooting as a "poster child" case for the backdoor fight
Even after the outside vendor demonstrated the hack, FBI officials didn't want to use the hack partly because it would make the legal fight with Apple unnecessary. The bureau wanted to set the precedent as it believed it could convince users with a terrorism case to push for encryption backdoors.
Amy Hess, then-FBI Executive Assistant Director (EAD), told the inspector general's office that she was concerned officials didn't seem to want to find a solution or that they knew of one but didn't want to use it to beat Apple. An excerpt from the report (emphasis is ours):
After the outside vendor successfully demonstrated its technique to the FBI in late March, EAD Hess learned of an alleged disagreement between the CEAU and ROU Chiefs over the use of this technique to exploit the Farook iPhone - the ROU [Remote Operations Unit] Chief wanted to use capabilities available to national security programs, and the CEAU [Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit] Chief did not. She became concerned that the CEAU Chief did not seem to want to find a technical solution, and that perhaps he knew of a solution but remained silent in order to pursue his own agenda of obtaining a favorable court ruling against Apple. According to EAD Hess, the problem with the Farook iPhone encryption was the “poster child” case for the Going Dark challenge.
The report, however, suggests that the bureau wasn't lying to the court, but there were communication gaps between different departments. While some wanted to exhaust all the options before dragging Apple to court, others prefered beating Apple once and for all to get a permanent backdoor.
"The FBI's leadership went straight to the nuclear option - attempting to force Apple to circumvent its encryption - before attempting to see if their in-house hackers or trusted outside suppliers had the technical capability to break in to the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone," Senator Ron Wyden said.
"It's clear now that the FBI was far more interested in using this horrific terrorist attack to establish a powerful legal precedent than they were in promptly gaining access to the terrorist's phone."