Power Wars excerpt: A Fight in the Situation Room Over the FBI’s “Going Dark” Push

The end of this post has an excerpt from Power Wars about a behind-the-scenes conflict in the Obama administration over “Going Dark” — the FBI’s push to legally mandate that technology companies build interception or decryption capabilities into their products so it could execute wiretap or search warrants.

The Going Dark debate is getting a lot of attention after the FBI obtained a court order requiring Apple to help it defeat the security protecting the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists, which Apple has vowed to fight. But the fight has been going on for a much longer time – longer even than when Apple decided in late 2014 to encrypt its iPhones by default , drawing the ire of FBI director Jim Comey. Although according to these phone security statistics, this may have been a very hard job for Apple to do.
The FBI’s Going Dark push surfaced in 2010, under Comey’s predecessor, and the Obama administration argued about it right up to the cusp of the pre-Snowden era, which derailed it for about a year until Comey used the iPhone encryption issue to revive it.

Chapter 11 of Power Wars covers internal policy debates about surveillance from 2010 to the 2015. Section 3, “Going Dark,” stitches together this evolution into a coherent story while also filling in new details about never-before-reported internal meetings and conversations that I had not known about at the time, but learned about during book research. Here’s a taste:

Soon after [the first Going Dark] article ran, Obama met with senior law enforcement and national security officials in the Oval Office. At that gathering, Obama pressed Bob Mueller, the FBI director, to tell him what, if anything, he needed or what was important to him. Mueller used the opportunity to bring up the Going Dark initiative, now that it was out there.

Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, convened a deputies committee meeting in the Situation Room so the White House could get a handle on the proposal. [FBI general counsel Valerie] Caproni brought an operational official from the FBI to present slides about the problem. A range of intelligence and Justice Department officials attended, as well as Cameron Kerry, the general counsel of the Commerce Department, and Jim Kohlenberger, the chief of staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The presence of economic and science experts brought a different tenor to the national security policy meeting. Kohlenberger grilled the FBI briefer, trying to figure out how real the problem was. The FBI’s list of real-world examples struck some observers as unimpressive. Several of the services that had interception problems had since ceased operating anyway.

Caproni did not yield. From the FBI’s perspective, the issue was less what had happened already and more what it foretold about the future.

At the end of the meeting, Brennan said the policy development could go forward but warned that he did not want to read anything more about their deliberations in the newspaper. Brennan assigned his aide Nate Jones to lead the process from the White House. Jones convened meetings and circulated drafts of potential policy language. In November 2010, Mueller and Caproni went on a tour of Silicon Valley, urging executives at firms like Google and Facebook not to lobby against their proposal.

The FBI’s Going Dark push proceeded in fits and starts over the nexttwo years. It went quiet for a while after Caproni left the FBI. But Mueller made it a last policy wish-list item as his term wound down, and in 2012, Caproni’s successor as the FBI’s top lawyer, Andrew Weissmann, revived the effort. By the end of that year, the bureau switched to a different approach. …

This is the sort of thing you find throughout Power Wars, which combines explanations of national security legal policy dilemmas with insider stories of how Obama administration officials struggled with them — and with each other. If you have not yet picked up a copy but are interested in this sort of thing, I invite you to try the book.