PHOENIX — FBI Director James Comey revealed for the first time that one of the two Phoenix gunmen killed in May outside a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, while trying to commit a terrorist attack had sent 109 messages that same morning to an overseas terrorist.
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The FBI still hasn’t been able to determine what the encrypted messages said, Comey disclosed while testifying Thursday at a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing in Washington, D.C.
Comey was trying to illustrate ongoing concerns that law-enforcement officials investigating counterterrorism and criminal cases are unable to unlock encrypted messages sent on smartphones, rendering court orders to obtain that information ineffective.
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He called on tech companies to develop a “business model” that allows law-enforcement officials to access de-encrypted messages when legally authorized while still protecting privacy concerns.
“We have no idea what he said, because those messages were encrypted. And to this day I can’t tell you what he said with that terrorist 109 times the morning of that attack. That is a big problem. We have to grapple with it,” Comey told senators.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said the FBI has been raising concerns about the inability to access encrypted messages but this was the first time Comey offered a specific example.
He said he shares Comey’s concerns.
While still being sensitive to privacy concerns, Flake said, “we obviously would like to know who these people are talking to when it’s a serious investigation that has gone far beyond just probable cause. You want to know because you want to head off future attacks and prosecute those that you are dealing with.”.
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Comey’s disclosure came during a hearing that primarily focused on last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Comey disclosed that the couple who carried out the California attack were radicalized at least two years ago.
Comey said he wouldn’t comment on whether encrypted texts were used to plan that attack or the one last month in Paris. He also didn’t provide any information on the overseas recipient of the Garland texts.
In May, armed with assault-style rifles, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi wounded a security officer outside a “draw the prophet” cartoon contest intended to lampoon the Prophet Mohammed. Police returned fire and shot and killed the two men, who shared a Phoenix apartment.
Simpson, 30, and Soofi, 34, were attempting to carry out an attack modeled after January’s Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, law-enforcement officials have said.
Comey had previously said that hours before the attempted attack in Garland, FBI agents sent a bulletin to local authorities indicating that Simpson may have been interested in traveling to Garland from Phoenix to attend the cartoon conference. At the time, Comey said, agents did not have specific information that Simpson had targeted the meeting.
Both men had once attended the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix.
The mosque’s president, Usama Shami, who has previously condemned the two men’s actions, said Thursday he is not surprised one of them had sent messages to an overseas terrorist.
“I am sure there were communications between them and somebody else. Probably that is how they got radicalized,” said Shami. “If they decided to do what they did, then it’s not surprising that they were communicating with somebody else.”.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY.