According to Richard Ledgett, the NSA's deputy director, the NSA didn't have the capability to break into the phone.
When the FBI was trying to break into the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, many assumed that the NSA would have the technical capability to do so. Turns out, one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world couldn't hack into that specific model, according to an NSA official.
"We don't do every phone, every variation of phone," Richard Ledgett, the NSA's deputy director, said during a conference at Washington's Newseum on Friday, reports The Intercept.
"If we don't have a bad guy who's using it, we don't do that." Ledgett explained that the agency has to prioritize its resources, and that might not include popular gadgets, The Intercept adds. (The device was an iPhone 5c, running the iOS 9 operating system).
Of course, there is slight irony in Ledgett's comments, considering the iPhone in question belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, uncontroversially a bad guy. But it's likely Ledgett was only referring to NSA targets specifically.
As we all know, the FBI went on to buy an exploit for accessing the phone from a group of grey hat hackers for a large sum of cash. This exploit allowed the agency to use a brute-force attack on the iPhone, without the risk of deleting the data stored on it. iPhones have a feature that can wipe local data if a wrong passcode is entered multiple times; that, and the lock mechanism can increase the time that a new passcode attempt can be entered exponentially.
Funnily enough, Apple said in a legal filing that the FBI should ask the NSA for help.
"The government has not made any showing that it sought or received technical assistance from other federal agencies with expertise in digital forensics, which assistance might obviate the need to conscript Apple to create the back door it now seeks," the company wrote in February.
If Ledgett is right, the NSA couldn't have helped even if it wanted to.