FBI Director on Apple Fight: "Emotion Around That Issue Was Not Productive"

From left, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hold a news conference on March 24. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

FBI Director James Comey admitted on Tuesday that the Apple-FBI feud over unlocking the San Bernardino, California, shooter's iPhone brought out "emotion around that issue was not productive" during a talk at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

The much-anticipated court case that never happened grabbed national attention and sparked fierce debate between government officials and Silicon Valley executives. Comey reflected that the two months between Apple refusing to cooperate with the FBI and the FBI finding a way to decrypt the iPhone without Apple's help "the hardest problem I've encountered in my entire government career."

In front of an audience at the Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, Comey likened the fervor to another hotly debated national topic. "Some of the emotion that I've received around this issue reminds me sometimes—in the absolutist and slippery slope arguments—remind me of some of the rhetoric we hear in the gun debate," Comey says. He specifically pointed to Twitter as a hotbed for such absolutist dialogues.

With the FBI cracking Syed Farook's iPhone 5c, the larger debate on governmental access to encrypted devices has subsided. But with a Senate encryption bill on its way, the details of which were been leaked last week, Comey believes the issue will persist.

Other areas of the government have picked up the FBI's fight. The Department of Justice recently has been trying to force Apple to reveal an iPhone's data in a New York City drug case. There also appears to be another undisclosed case in Boston that has Apple fighting law enforcement and federal prosecutors over decrypting iPhones.

While Comey did not specify what type of solution he wanted, he stated that he was relieved the litigation was over. Apple CEO Tim Cook, however, has asked for Congress to intervene and pass legislation on the issue. "We can't resolve these really important issues that affect our values—technology, innovation, safety and all kinds of other things—in litigation," Comey says.

Regardless of how the legal battle plays out, Comey warned the audience of not painting either side with a black-and-white look. "Apple is not a demon," Comey says. "I hope people don't perceive the FBI as a demon."