May 18, 2020
William Barr & Chris Wray Pensacola Shooting Press Conference Transcript: Al Qaeda Linked to Suspect
Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray gave an update on the 2019 Pensacola shooting investigation in a press conference today. They said the suspect communicated directly with an Al Qaeda operative. Barr also said it’s unlikely there will be a federal investigation of Barack Obama or Joe Biden. Full transcript here.
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William Barr: (00:00)
Terrorist who was killed at the time of his attack, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. It was clear at the time that the phones were likely to contain very important information. Indeed, Alshamrani attempted to destroy both of the phones, even going so far as to disengage from the gunfight long enough to fire a bullet into one of the phones.
William Barr: (00:28)
Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders supported by probable cause authorizing the Bureau to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation. The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in. We asked Apple for assistance and the president asked Apple for assistance. Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user, in this case the terrorist, could gain access to their contents.
William Barr: (01:10)
Today I am pleased to announce that thanks to the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians, the FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani’s phones. The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes Alshamrani’s significant ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States. We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months, and days leading up to his attack. Indeed, the information from the phones has already proved invaluable in protecting the American people. A counter terrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen. We will not hesitate to act against those who harm Americans.
William Barr: (02:19)
I would now like to turn the podium over to Director Wray, who will provide further information and an update on the FBI’s investigation.
Christopher Wray: (02:38)
Thank you. First, let me say I deeply appreciate the attorney general’s leadership and support for the FBI, both in our relentless fight against terrorism, and in our drive to obtain the vital evidence we need to protect the American people.
Christopher Wray: (02:55)
We’re here today because of a tragic reminder of how grave, how imminent, the terrorism threat still is – an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula associate’s murder of three people and wounding of eight others right here in America.
Christopher Wray: (03:14)
As the Attorney General described, through a combination of skill and determination, the men and women of the FBI have succeeded in accessing the terrorist’s two phones, both of which he tried to destroy. Our investigation into December’s terror attack in Pensacola continues, so there are limits on what I can say today. But this is an important moment in an important case. It’s important because of what accessing the evidence of this killer’s phone allows us to do to protect the American people.
Christopher Wray: (03:49)
In just a short time we finally accessed that evidence, we and our partners have already put it to good use. Among other steps we’ve taken, just a moment ago you heard the Attorney General describe the recent counter terrorism operation targeting Abdullah al-Maliki, one of the overseas AQAP operatives that Alshamrani associated with while here in the United States. It’s also important because it underlines just how serious our fight against terrorism is and how vital it is for the FBI to maintain its unflagging vigilance against the threat.
Christopher Wray: (04:28)
The evidence we’ve been able to develop from the killer’s devices shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a long time AQAP associate. The new evidence shows that Alshamrani had radicalized not after training here in the United States, but at least as far back as 2015, and that he had been connecting and associating with a number of dangerous AQAP operatives ever since. It shows that Alshamrani described a desire to learn about flying years ago, around the same time he talked about attending the Saudi Air Force Academy in order to carry out what he called a special operation. He then pressed his plans forward, joining the air force and bringing his plot here to America.
Christopher Wray: (05:24)
Thanks to a lot of hard work by our people, we now know that Alshamrani continued to associate with AQAP even while living in Texas and in Florida. Then in the months before the attack, while he was here among us, he talked with AQAP about his plans and tactics, taking advantage of the information he acquired here to assess how many people he could try to kill.
Christopher Wray: (05:55)
He was meticulous in his planning. He made pocket cam videos as he cased his classroom building. He wrote a final will purporting to explain himself and saved it in his phone – the exact same will that AQAP released two months later when they initially claimed responsibility. He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics, he was helping the organization make the most it could out of his murders. He continued to confer with his AQAP associates right up until the end, the very night before he started shooting.
Christopher Wray: (06:35)
Now we’re still exploiting the evidence we’ve now obtained from Alshamrani’s phones and we’re continuing to run our investigation, now with the benefit of a lot more insight into the murderer’s mind and intentions, his relations with AQAP, and his tactics. We have more to learn, but we know enough now to see Alshamrani for what he was, a determined AQAP terrorist who spent years preparing to attack us. We now have a picture of him we didn’t have before we obtained this evidence, before we could confirm that his connection to AQAP was real, before we could track his long and methodical path to violence. A picture we would never have obtained without accessing his devices.
Christopher Wray: (07:27)
This case is a potent reminder for anyone who needed one of the stakes of our work. We protect the American people from a staggering range of threats, but make no mistake, securing the homeland against terrorism remains our top priority. The men and women of the FBI are deployed around the clock all over the country and around the world, identifying and disrupting threats and pursuing those who would do us harm. At the FBI, we remain laser-focused on the terrorism threat, not just because of how much damage an attack can cause our country, but because we also know that even as we speak, there are evolving and sophisticated groups around the world intent on striking us. Whether core Al Qaeda, or it’s offshoots like AQAP or ISIS, or the many others, we are working with our partners to find and disrupt them wherever they are, whether they’re plotting attacks on Americans here at home or abroad.
Christopher Wray: (08:35)
Our people are attacking every aspect of the terrorism threat, international, like we’re here talking about today, and domestic, with dedication and expertise with innovation to more than match the evolving threat and with a commitment to getting the job done right.
Christopher Wray: (08:54)
On the topic of innovation, I want to thank and congratulate the men and women of the FBI who devoted months of hard work to accessing these devices. They successfully tackled a problem that required tenacity, creativity, and technical expertise. Those qualities are valuable in any organization, so I know how fortunate we are and how fortunate the American people are that we have so many people with those qualities at the FBI. That’s why we work to recruit the kinds of people we do.
Christopher Wray: (09:28)
The magnitude of the challenge they faced is hard to overstate. We received effectively no help from Apple. We canvassed every partner out there and every company that might’ve had a solution to access these phones. None did, despite what some claimed in the media. So we did it ourselves. Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem. It’s of pretty limited application. But it has made a huge difference in this investigation.
Christopher Wray: (10:03)
But it has made a huge difference in this investigation. While we’re thanking the FBI’s computer scientists, engineers, and other professionals for their hard work, we should also be thinking about the cost of all that work. Public servants, already swamped with important things to do to protect the American people, toiling through a pandemic and with all the risks and hardship that entails, had to spend all that time just to access evidence that we had court-authorized search warrants for months ago. Our engineers and computer scientists working to access these phones were also needed on other pressing national security and criminal investigations. But the delay from getting into these devices didn’t just divert our personnel from other important work. It also seriously hampered this investigation. Finally, getting our hands on the evidence Alshamrani tried to keep from us is great, but we really needed it months ago back in December when the court issued its warrants.
Christopher Wray: (11:09)
In the aftermath of the attack, we and our joint terrorism task force partners worked urgently to collect and analyze evidence. In the weeks immediately following December 6, we conducted over 500 interviews of witnesses, base personnel, and the shooter’s friends, classmates, and associates among lots of other efforts, but because the crucial evidence on the killer’s phones was kept from us, we did all that investigating not knowing what we do know now, valuable intelligence about what to ask, what to look for. If we had, our round the clock all hands on deck effort would have been a lot more productive. And now months after the attack, anyone he spoke to here or abroad has had months to concoct and compare stories with co-conspirators, destroy evidence, and disappear. As a result, there’s a lot we can’t do at this point that we could have done months ago.
Christopher Wray: (12:14)
You’ll hear more from the attorney general in just a moment on just how vital lawful access is to every part of both our law enforcement and national security missions. Cyber crime, opioid trafficking, child sexploitation, you name it. Lack of lawful access affects every fight we’re in, and Americans need to understand that this isn’t just an issue for law enforcement. Lack of lawful access certainly affects our ability to do our jobs, but we know where the harm really falls. When evidence is kept unavailable, it falls on innocent people, the people we’re sworn to protect. In this case, we and our partners aren’t only ones who needed that information months ago. The victims, those who were wounded, and those who lost loved ones deserved to know then what happened, not to have to wait to hear it from a QAP months after the fact when one of the killer’s own associates, the operative Abdullah al-Maliki that the attorney general and I both mentioned earlier, issued claim of responsibility for the attack. We at the FBI never forget that three brave members of our armed forces were killed in this attack. They were Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham from St. Petersburg, Florida, Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson of Coffee, Alabama, and Airman Cameron Scott Walters from Richmond Hill, Georgia. They were serving our country and they died as heroes, and we have them front of mind every day as we continue the battle against the same threat they did.
Christopher Wray: (14:07)
I want to end by also extending my and the FBI’s thanks to all of our partners. Our partners are essential to everything we do, and this case in many ways has been a perfect example of that. Our joint terrorism task force in Jacksonville and our Pensacola resident agency have led this investigation in partnership with their colleagues in the US Attorney’s Office for the northern district of Florida, and with essential help from NCIS, Air Force OSI, ATF, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The assistance of our state and local partners in Pensacola has been invaluable as well as has been that of our intelligence community partners. And I especially want to recognize the brave Naval security forces personnel and deputies from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office who responded to that initial call for help. The Defense Department has also been an essential partner. In addition to DOD’s work on the JTTF, the Navy officials in Pensacola and DOD personnel at all levels both in Washington and around the world have been vital to our effort to investigate this heinous attack and prevent others in the future.
Christopher Wray: (15:29)
Finally, to the victims and their families. Know that our work continues. Right now we and our partners are exploiting the evidence from this investigation, pursuing the killer’s potential associates and the new evidence that these devices can now lead us to. We and our JTTF colleagues come in every day dedicated to preventing terrorism from any place by any actor, and that work will never rest. Thank you.
William Barr: (16:06)
Thank you, Director Ray. And let me thank all your colleagues at the FBI for the outstanding work that they have done in this case, and it serves as a reminder of the relentless efforts of the professionals at the FBI who every day stand on the ramparts protecting the safety of the American people.
William Barr: (16:34)
Now, while their hard work has led to this important breakthrough in this case, and this should be celebrated, I must also express great disappointment that it took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should have been easily and quickly accessible when we obtained court orders. Apple has made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in a way that only the user can unlock the contents no matter what the circumstances. In cases like this where the user is a terrorist or in other cases where the user is a violent criminal, human trafficker, a child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for the public safety and the national security and is in my judgment unacceptable. Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs. Under our nation’s long-established constitutional principles where a court authorizes a search for evidence of a crime, an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader public interest. There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security. Striking this balance should not be left to corporate boardrooms. It is a decision that must be made by the American people through their representatives.
William Barr: (18:24)
Public safety and privacy are not mutually exclusive. We are confident that technology companies are capable of building secure products that protect user information and at the same time allow for law enforcement access when permitted by a judge as Apple had done willingly for many years and others are still doing today. Many of the technology companies that advocate most loudly for warrant-proof encryption in the name of privacy rights are at the same time willing to accommodate authoritarian regimes when it serves their business interests. For example, it has been widely reported that Apple has worked with both the Communist Party of China and the Russian regime to relocate data centers to enable bulk surveillance by those governments. Apple also has reportedly disabled features and applications on iPhones used by pro-democracy advocates, thereby facilitating censorship and oppression. If technology companies like Apple are willing to oblige the demands of authoritarian regimes, they certainly have no excuse for failing to cooperate with rule of law nations that respect civil liberties and privacy rights and have judicial safeguards. The developments in this case demonstrate the need for a legislative solution.
William Barr: (20:02)
Create the need for a legislative solution. The truth is that we needed some luck here in addition to the ingenuity to get the phones this time. There’s no guarantee that we can be successful in the future or that we can avoid massive delays. In this case, more than four months. These will have significant consequences for the American people. In addition to the cost and time and money of devising alternative methods of accessing encrypted information, it can be enormous. This is not a scalable solution. Right now across the nation, there are many phones, both at the federal and state level that we still cannot unlock despite having court orders. As commercial encryption becomes more sophisticated, our odds of success diminish with each passing year.
William Barr: (20:58)
We cannot do our jobs when companies put the ability to defeat court authorized searches in the hands of terrorists and predatory criminals. When combating threats to our homeland, we need American tech leaders to work with us, not against us. Over the past year, I have repeatedly asked tech companies to work with us to provide better solutions. Unfortunately, no progress has been made. For the safety and security of our citizens, we cannot afford to wait any longer. Thank you. That’s the end of our prepared remarks and we will now open it up for questions.
Speaker 2: (21:51)
We will now begin the question and answer session. To ask a question, you may press star, then one on your touch tone phone. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up your handset before pressing the keys. To withdraw your question, please press star then two at any time. When you pose your question, please state who the question is for. At this time, we will pause momentarily to assemble our roster. Our first question comes from Pete Williams with NBC News.
Pete Williams: (22:24)
Mr. Attorney General, two questions if I may. You said that Alshamrani was associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Would you describe this as inspired or directed? And secondly, President Trump has recently said that he wants to see the justice department prosecute figures of the Obama administration, president Obama and Joseph Biden for what he calls crimes. Is that something the DOJ will do.
William Barr: (22:48)
Okay. Let me ask the director to respond to the first question and then I’ll come back and answer the second.
Christopher Wray: (22:57)
So with respect to Alshamrani’s connections with AQAP, I think we are describing today what we’re able to share at this point. Some of it is very much ongoing as we exploit different leads coming out of his two devices. It is certainly more than just inspired. We know, for example, that he was sharing plans and tactics with them. We know that he was coordinating with them and providing an opportunity for them to take credit for the attack. And so I think we’ll have to, just for the moment, stick with some of the verbs that we’ve used already and more to come on that as we continue to build out what we now know from his phones.
William Barr: (23:51)
Pete, I’m not going to comment on what the president or vice president Biden for that matter, say in connection with their campaigns. But I will address the role of the department of justice. I think as you know, I’ve commented since I have been attorney general and even during my confirmation hearings that over the past few decades, there have been increasing attempts to use the criminal justice system as a political weapon. The legal tactic has been to gin up allegations of criminality by one’s political opponents based on the flimsiest of legal theories. This is not a good development. This is not good for our political life, and it’s not good for the criminal justice system. And as long as I’m attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends. And this is especially true for the upcoming elections and in November.
William Barr: (25:07)
We live in a very divided country right now, and I think that it is critical that we have an election where the American people are allowed to make a decision, a choice between President Trump and vice president Biden based on a robust debate of policy issues. And we cannot allow this process to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate. And I’m committed that this election will be conducted without this kind of interference. Any effort to pursue an investigation of either candidate has to be approved by me. And what happened to the president and I’ve said this many times, what happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent. It was a grave injustice and it was unprecedented in American history. The law enforcement and intelligence apparatus of this country were involved in advancing a false and utterly baseless Russian collusion narrative against the president.
William Barr: (26:29)
The proper investigative and prosecutive standards of the department of justice were abused, in my view, in order to reach a particular result. We saw two different standards of justice emerge, one that applied to President Trump and his associates and the other that applied to everybody else. We can’t allow this ever to happen again. The Durham investigation is trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and it will determine whether there were any federal laws broken. And if there were, those who broke the laws will be held to account. But this cannot be and it will not be a tit for tat exercise. We are not going to lower the standards just to achieve a result. The only way to stop this vicious cycle, the only way to break away from a dual system of justice is to make sure that we scrupulously apply a single and proper standard of justice for everybody.
William Barr: (27:40)
Now under the longstanding standards of the department, criminal charges are appropriate only when we have enough evidence to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the standard we’re applying. Now I have a general idea of how Mr. Durham’s investigation is going and as I have indicated, some aspects of the matter are being examined as potential crimes. But we have to bear in mind what the Supreme Court recently reminded us of in the bridge gate case. The court said there, there’s a difference between an abuse of power and a federal crime. Not every abuse of power, no matter how outrageous, is necessarily a federal crime. Now as to President Obama and Vice President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others. Thanks for your question, Pete. The next question.
Speaker 2: (28:58)
Our next question comes from PJ Thomas with ABC.
William Barr: (29:03)
Speaker 4: (29:05)
Good afternoon, or good morning. Thank you for time. Question number one, I have two questions, is what can you say about the relative strength of Al Qaeda in terms of what this case shows and what it says about the Saudi’s ability to vet people before they send them to the United States? And then the second question has to do, you’ve made clear that neither the Vice President Biden or former President Obama are currently the subject of an investigation. Can you make it clear what group of people are you focused on in terms of possible wrongdoing and/or abuse? Are we talking about FBI officials or intelligence officials or both?
William Barr: (29:50)
Thanks, Pierre. Let me just take the second part first. Obviously with Mr. [inaudible 00:29:57] work underway, I really cannot comment on specifically who is being looked at.
William Barr: (30:03)
Specifically, who is being looked at. But I think we’re all familiar with the set of circumstances that is generally being reviewed. On the first part of your question, let me just say something briefly about the vetting process. Obviously before this incident, it was not sufficient. The Saudis have been fully cooperative throughout this investigation up until now. We are working closely with the Saudis, and the Defense Department and the Saudis have been working to buttress the screening process and the vetting process to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Now, as to the relative strength of Al Qaeda, let me ask the director to comment on that.
Christopher Wray: (30:53)
Pierre, on the issue of Al Qaeda and its relative strength, I think what this investigation reveals is something that we’ve been saying for some time, which is that Al Qaeda’s offshoots, including AQAP, remain intent on attacking us wherever they can, including here in the US, if they can find a way to do it. I think it also illustrates just how dangerous one operative can be and the number of ways in which we can be hit if we don’t stay vigilant, and that’s why counter-terrorism remains our number one priority and why our JTTFs all over the country and all of our partners are so focused on this issue. It’s important that Americans not get complacent because the threat is real. It’s still here, and we’re determined to thwart it.
Speaker 6: (31:46)
William Barr: (31:49)
Speaker 8: (31:50)
As a reminder, if you would like to join the queue, please press star, then one. Our next question comes from David Martin with CBS.
David Martin: (32:05)
Thank you. Two questions. One, this counter-terrorism operation against al-Maliki. Was it an airstrike and did the operation kill him? And second, did the information in the phones implicate any of the other Saudi pilots at Pensacola, for instance, the ones who had dinner with Alshamrani the night before, or the ones who used their cell phones to record the actual shooting? Thank you.
William Barr: (32:40)
I would say the first part I’m afraid we can’t get into further details. When we were talking about earlier, the question of the relative strength of Al Qaeda, the al-Maliki group has been seriously degraded, and I’m very pleased with the results of the counterterrorism operation and believe that has further degraded the capabilities of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. For the second part of the question, let me turn to the director.
Christopher Wray: (33:16)
So at this stage, in terms of our exploitation of the information on Alshamrani’s phones, we have not identified any current threat here in the US or current operative here in the US based on that information. Now, it’s certainly a very ongoing investigation, and certainly there are questions based on the information we now have, that we would have liked to have been able to ask all the people that he was associating with while he was here. So more to come on that.
William Barr: (33:54)
Take one more question.
Speaker 8: (33:58)
Our final question today comes from David Spunt with Fox News.
David Spunt: (34:04)
Yes. Hi. How are you? Thank you both. Mr. Attorney General, you mentioned that President Trump specifically got in touch with Tim Cook at Apple. That didn’t seem to do anything, obviously. Do you feel like Apple is moving the needle at all, or do you just seem … Obviously I know you want this to be a good conclusion, or do you just think this is going to be a standstill for years to come?
William Barr: (34:30)
No, I’ve seen no sign that Apple has moved the needle or is willing to try to move the needle. This is not a unique situation. Businesses frequently make products that if allowed out in the market in the form that the business may optimally want could create dangers to public safety. And normally what we do in that circumstance is we don’t leave the decision up to the business about the exact details and configuration of their product, if we feel that it will cause harm to the public. That decision is not left to the business. It is a social decision that is made by our society, made by the public, in the public interest.
William Barr: (35:22)
And we see that with restrictions or limitations or required features that are sometimes imposed on manufacturers to make sure the public is not put in danger. So this is nothing new. This is what we normally do. But for some reason there are some tech companies who feel that they’re above that and that they unilaterally can make decisions based on their business interests and regardless of the dangers posed to the public, and we cannot let that happen. So with that I conclude the conference today, and I again, appreciate all of you attending.