Private texts show FBI agents thought Tim Cook was a ‘hypocrite’ in the San Bernardino iPhone encryption fight

Tim CookStephen Lam / Stringer / Getty

  • Apple publicly fought the FBI in 2016 over issues
    related to privacy, encryption, and an iPhone used by a
  • Texts between FBI employees released earlier this week
    give a peek into how some agents saw the battle. 

In February 2016, as Apple and the FBI were quietly sparring over
how to unlock an iPhone owned by
one of the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino,
, two FBI officials unrelated to the case back in
Washington DC were privately discussing their distaste for Apple
CEO Tim Cook.

“And what makes me really angry about that Apple thing? The fact
that Tim Cook plays such the privacy advocate,” Peter Strzok, an
FBI counterintelligence agent, wrote on February 9, 2016. “Yeah,
jerky, your entire OS is designed to track me without me even
knowing it.”

“I know. Hypocrite,” Lisa Page, a lawyer for the
bureau, replied minutes later. 

A week after
that exchange
, the strained relationship between Apple and
the nation’s top law enforcement agency became international news
when Cook wrote
an open letter
explaining why Apple would not create special
software to unlock the shooter’s iPhone, defying a request to do
so by the FBI.  The FBI eventually dropped the request
because it found a third-party vendor who was able to extract
data from the iPhone 5C without Apple’s help.

FBI iPhoneGetty

Courtesy of the Hillary Clinton probe

The exchange between FBI agents Strzok and Page is part of
hundreds pages of bureau text messages recently published by the
Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as
part of a Republican-driven investigation into how the the bureau
handled the Hillary Clinton probe. 

While the texts may not reveal a “bombshell”
conspiracy inside the FBI related to the Clinton investigation,
they do provide a revealing window into how some people inside
the FBI reacted to the standoff with Apple. The discussion
is a long-running, unguarded conversation between two people who
were close to each other and their opinions cannot be taken to
represent all FBI agents. Earlier this year, for instance, a FBI
agent in San Francisco
publicly praised Apple
and its willingness to work with law

Although Strzok nor Page were apparently on the Apple case, at
one point, Page appears to have been told who the FBI contracted
with the ultimately unlock the phone without Apple’s help, which
remains a public secret. Comments that appear to provide
revealing information about the third-party is redacted in the
published texts. 

The two FBI employees seem to be skeptical of Cook and Apple
throughout their text relationship — although they were also
critical of many other people and institutions including
politicians, newspapers, and foreign spies. The two also
lament that it appeared to them as if Apple had won the public
relations battle over the phone. 

February 9, 2016 — accusations of hypocrisy

feb 9FBI

The battle between Apple and the FBI had not yet broken out into
international news. On February 9, then-FBI director James Comey
announced that the bureau had not been able to access data on an
iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook, who had committed a mass shooting
in San Bernardino, California. 

“We still have one of those killer’s phones that we have
not been able to open,” Comey said.

It was then that both Page and Strzok started
following the issue. “And what makes me really angry about
that Apple thing? The fact that Tim Cook plays such the privacy
advocate,” Strzok wrote.

“I know. Hypocrite,” Lisa Page, a lawyer for the
bureau, replied minutes later. 

“Ha, I had mine already turned off. Apparently I’m
paranoid,” Strzok wrote, although it’s unclear which iPhone
feature he’s talking about. 

February 20, 2016 — Agents on iMessage

feb 20FBI

Five days after Cook wrote a letter to Apple customers on
the front page of Apple.com, the two discuss Apple once

“Oh god. And [REDACTED] is trying to explain/defend apple’s
position. Based entirely on the misinformation Apple and privacy
groups are spewing,” Strzok wrote.

He then sent Page a link to
two different
York Times articles
 about the controversy. 

“The times, for once, does a decent job of explaining our
position, for once,” he concludes. 

Most of Page’s reply is redacted, but she asks, “What was
the Apple thing?” 

“You can tell me on imsg, or it can wait,” she continues,
suggesting she knows that these texts are being recorded.
iMessage, Apple’s messaging service, is end-to-end encrypted,
which offers additional privacy benefits.

It wasn’t the first time that the two had discussed the
trade-offs between computer security and law enforcement
priorities. In 2015, Page had sent a link to
a blog post
about a government court filing about Apple’s
encryption, noting, “Still, I like the reasoning. Yay

March 6, 2016 – Staying abreast of Apple news

march 16FBI

Page sent Strzok a link to a New York Times article with a
comment that is redacted in the public version of the texts.

This is the article

March 28, 2016 – “Everyone and their mother wants to know how we
did it.”

march 28FBI

In a heavily redacted text, Page says that she got “Brian” to
“tell me the whole story of the Apple thing.”

Strzok quickly replies, “Everyone and their mother wants to know
how we did it and who the third party is.” 

“Hope he didn’t tell you for former as that is likely classified
by now…”

The fact that the section above is redacted suggests that the
information relates to the mysterious third-party that cracked
the iPhone.

April 9, 2016 — What does the ACLU say?

april 9FBI

The two FBI employees discuss
a New York Times op-ed
written by Jameel Jaffer, then an ACLU

April 15, 2016 — a mystery news article about Apple

april 15FBI

Strzok teases an “interesting Apple story if you have time to
talk this weekend.”  The next several replies are

September 2, 2016 — Love the tech, not the techies

sept 2FBI

Strzok texts Page: “NYTimes.com breaking” and “You saw the
byline, right?”

Although there’s no link, it’s likely
this story about the FBI’s Hillary Clinton investigation

Page replies: “It helps that the Director and Deputy really hate
these phones too. And really love their personal iphones.”

Strzok: “Now if Tim Cook would only fall off the face of the

The subsequent discussion that reveals how some people at the FBI
feel about the country’s most valuable technology company — the
love the products, but dislike the people in charge. The
text also suggests that Comey, as bureau director, has a personal
iPhone that he likes. 

October 18, 2016 — Vice President Tim Cook? “Gross”

october 10FBI

The two FBI employees gawk at Clinton campaign chairman John
Podesta’s emails, which had recently been leaked at the time by
A list of possible vice presidential candidates include Cook

“You see Tim Cook made the list of potential [Hillary Rodham
Clinton] running mates?”

“Gross, no.” 

November 14, 2016 — “making me very angry”

november 13FBI

“God, I hate academics. Lots on the big bad fbi litigation with
apple. It’s making me very angry.” 

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