WASHINGTON / AP
The FBI defended its decision to withhold documents on how it unlocked an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters, saying the information could be exploited by â€œhostile entitiesâ€ if released to the public.
The Justice Department earlier this month released heavily censored records in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from The Associated Press, Vice Media and Gannett, the parent company of USA Today. The justice department didnâ€™t disclose the details about how much the FBI paid last year to a third party to unlock the work phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people at a holiday party in December 2015, as well as the identity of that vendor.
In a court filing on Monday that sought to justify those redactions, the Justice Department argued that the information it withheld, if released, could be seized upon by â€œhostile entitiesâ€ who could develop their own â€œcountermeasuresâ€ and interfere with the FBIâ€™s intelligence gathering. The government also argued that disclosure â€œwould result in severe damage to the FBIâ€™s efforts to detect and apprehend violators of the United Statesâ€™ national security and criminal laws through these very activities and methods.â€
â€œThe withheld information is also very specific in nature, provided during a specific time period, and is known to very few individuals,â€ Justice Department lawyers said. The FBI in its most recent filing broadened the legal arguments it had used earlier this month, when it released about 100 pages of largely redacted documents, saying for the first time that national security was at risk and that the records were entirely exempt from disclosure under the law. It has moved to keep 23 additional pages fully secret.
The Obama administration had imposed a â€œforeseeable harmâ€ standard for withholding records under the Freedom of Information Act, saying that â€œopenness prevailsâ€ in the face of doubt and that â€œspeculative or abstract fearsâ€ are not sufficient for withholding documents.
The media organizations sued in September to learn how much the FBI paid and who it hired to break into the phone of Farook. The FBI for weeks had maintained that only Apple Inc. could access the information on its phone, which was protected by encryption, but ultimately broke or bypassed Appleâ€™s digital locks with the help of an unnamed third party.