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Feds 'frustrated' by Tim Cook TV interview: Official

A senior law enforcement official told CNBC that officials are "frustrated" by Apple CEO Tim Cook's interview on ABC News Wednesday, particularly Cook's argument that the FBI's proposal in the dispute about access to a San Bernardino, California, shooter's iPhone would affect "hundreds of millions of users."

Officials point to the text of the court order issued last week and argue that their proposal is "a solution for a single device by serial number in a single case."

The official also responded to Cook's analogy that creating new software to access the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook would be akin to creating the "software equivalent of cancer." Cook's argument is that new software designed just to eliminate the security features of Farook's iPhone would inevitably be targeted by hackers and thieves and possibly escape into the control of hostile third parties.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
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Apple CEO Tim Cook

That doesn't convince many officials in Washington.

"If you're talking cancer cells," the official said, responding to Cook's analogy, "in this case [Apple] would create the cancer cell, they would use the cancer cell and they would destroy the cancer cell, in their own facility, where you would think they have very good security."

That private assessment by a government official differed from the public tone of FBI Director James Comey in testimony Thursday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In his public remarks, Comey went out of his way to praise Apple for its cooperation before the dispute went public last week.

He declined an opening offered by a member of Congress to repeat government claims that Apple is acting out of concern for its business model. And Comey suggested he could see both sides of the issue, saying the dispute "is the hardest question I've seen in government" and emphasizing the need for conversation and negotiation.

For his part, Apple CEO Cook used his ABC News interview to frame the debate in terms of the fundamental aspects of American life. "This is not about one phone — this is about the future," he said. "It's about freedom of expression and freedom of speech, these are core principles in America."

And Cook also worried aloud about the potential consequences of being forced to write new software for the government. "If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they can ask us to write," he said. "Maybe it's an operating system for surveillance. Maybe it's the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera. I mean, I don't know where this stops."