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in the aftermath of one of its raids on a trove of clinton emails, the fbi wrote a march 2015 letter to apple threatening legal action against the company unless it built a backdoor for an investigation. and rather than telling apple that its threat was ill-advised and therefore against the law, a group of department of justice lawyers waived their authority and signed off on the letter.
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the fbi also urged apple to ignore requests to hand over communications that were stored on devices not in fbi possession, including a redacted october 2015 court order requiring apple to assist law enforcement to extract data from an iphone that belonged to the shooter of a police officer in san bernardino, california.
in addition to cases where an investigation has already been concluded, the bureau could use the powers to compel apple to produce a copy of a suspect s iphone, or copy the relevant data itself. the assistant attorney general in charge of the department, yates, could grant such an order, but a law-enforcement official told the washington post earlier this year that the authorization has only been granted three times since the warrant-issuing process was created in the early 2000s. although it is unlikely that the fbi would ever need such powers, the department of justice could change its regulations to introduce a new avenue to compel apple to build a backdoor.
the fact that encryption has become a major issue in washington owes much to the role that key figures such as wray and yates played during the obama years. once a regular presence at the white house, yates was confirmed as deputy attorney general by obama in january 2014, and appointed by obama as attorney general in january 2015, just as her former boss comey was promoted to fbi director. although she later recused herself from the russia investigation, yates has remained on the scene, becoming the public face of the efforts to fight encryption.