In Nod to Law Enforcement, Obama Ends Attempt to Straddle Privacy Divide

In Nod to Law Enforcement, Obama Ends Attempt to Straddle Privacy Divide

WASHINGTON — For years, President Obama has struggled to reconcile a civil libertarian’s belief in personal privacy with a commander-in-chief’s imperatives for the nation’s security.

This week, security won.

The decision by Mr. Obama’s Justice Department to force Apple to help it breach an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists has ended, at least for now, the president’s attempts to straddle the feud over encryption between Silicon Valley and law enforcement.

Asked about the president’s backing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry into San Bernardino, one of the worst terror attacks in the United States since September 11, 2001, Mr. Obama’s press secretary declared on Wednesday that “the F.B.I. can count on the full support of the White House.”

The decision may have been all but inevitable for Mr. Obama, who every morning receives a classified intelligence briefing about the terrorist threats facing the United States. But he took the position after years of trying to find middle ground on the issue.

In a meeting with technology company executives in the Situation Room last spring, Mr. Obama pleaded with them to allow national security and law enforcement officials some access to private data, according to one participant in the room. In an interview last year with Re/Code, a technology website, Mr. Obama lamented being stuck, “smack-dab in the middle of these tensions.”

“I think he realizes there’s no clear-cut answer here,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “But if ever there was going to be a nod to the law enforcement view, this was the one to do it.”

For much of his presidency, Mr. Obama has been unwilling to become a champion for either side, even as technological advances in encryption made a clash between privacy and security inevitable.

After Edward J. Snowden exposed some of the government’s most secret surveillance programs in 2013, the president repeatedly expressed support for the protection of user data on iPhones and other devices. But he also acknowledged the “legitimate need” to penetrate encryption, especially during terror investigations.

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