AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Justice Department announced a significant development today in its investigation into the deadly shooting last December at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. Officials now say the Saudi air force cadet who carried out the attack that killed three U.S. sailors had ties to al-Qaida. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now with the latest news.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So how did the Justice Department establish the connection between the shooter and al-Qaida?
LUCAS: The FBI managed to crack into the Saudi gunman's two locked iPhones that agents recovered after the attack. And it took the FBI several months to pull that off on their own, but they finally did it. And it turns out that in this case, there was indeed, actually, a lot of valuable evidence on those phones. Officials say that evidence shows that the gunman who, as you said, was a Saudi air force cadet in the U.S. for training had significant ties to al-Qaida's branch in Yemen. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the shooter had been communicating with the group's operatives since at least 2015 - so before he came to the U.S. - and that he remained very much in touch with the group after he came to the United States, even right up to the night before the attack. Wray said the gunman was coordinating with them, sharing planning and tactics and providing a chance for al-Qaida to take credit for his actions.
CHANG: These iPhones that the FBI managed to get into, I mean, I remember the Justice Department and Apple had been fighting over whether Apple should help break into these phones. Is that battle totally over now that the FBI has managed on its own to get into these phones?
LUCAS: So Attorney General William Barr came out swinging against Apple several months ago about these phones when this issue first came up. Barr and Wray both took aim at the company again today. They accused Apple of refusing to help to break into these devices, despite the fact that the FBI had a court order to access the information. Apple has pushed back on that. It has repeatedly said that it gave investigators all of the relevant data that it had. This is at root the latest in this long-running fight between the department and big tech companies like Apple over encrypted devices. Now, Wray said today that the way that the FBI broke into the iPhones in this case has limited applicability. And so it isn't a fix for this broader issue that investigators have of wanting to crack into encrypted devices.
CHANG: OK. Well, separately, also at today's press conference, Barr was asked about calls from President Trump and some of his allies asking the Justice Department to investigate former President Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden. What did Barr say about that?
LUCAS: Barr said interestingly that he doesn't expect either Obama or Biden to face a criminal investigation. Remember that Barr appointed a veteran federal prosecutor John Durham to examine the early days of the Russia probe - this sort of investigating the investigators idea. We know that that is a criminal investigation, but Barr said that the potential wrongdoing that Durham is looking into is focused on others, not on Obama and Biden. And he said Durham's investigation is not going to be a tit-for-tat exercise. He was very clear about that. Barr did say that he thinks over the past few decades that there have been growing attempts to try to use the criminal justice system as a political weapon to cook up allegations of wrongdoing by one's political opponents. He said that's bad for American politics, and it's bad for the American criminal justice system. And he said it won't happen under his watch.
Now, Barr's critics, they think these words are probably going to be - probably going to ring hollow. They argue he's already politicized the Justice Department with actions that he's taken in cases involving the president's friends, most recently his decision to drop the case against the president's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Barr says what he has done is sought to restore confidence in the justice system, though.
CHANG: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas.
Thank you, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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