The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Thursday that the FCC’s internal watchdog asked him to keep quiet for seven months after an investigation determined an outage suffered by its online comment system was not caused by hackers as previously claimed, defending his silence on the subject amid calls for his resignation.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told lawmakers that he learned in January that the commission’s former chief information officer, David Bray, made “inaccurate” statements to his colleagues and Congress when he repeatedly claimed a supposed cyberattack crippled the commission’s comment system in May 2017, but that he personally stayed silent on the outage’s actual origins until an inspector general’s investigation was concluded last week.
According to Mr. Pai, the FCC Office of Inspector General (OIG) instructed him in January, “do not say anything to anyone.”
“It was very hard to stay too quiet. We wanted the story to get out, not only because it vindicated what we had been saying — that we relied on the chief information officer’s representations — but also because otherwise, we knew that members of this committee… would think ‘Well, he knew something was wrong but he didn’t tell us about it,’” Mr. Pai told the Senate Oversight Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The FCC inspector general’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.
When the commission’s online comment portal went down last year, the FCC said that the outage was caused by “multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS),” referring to a rudimentary type of hacking tactic used to render sites inaccessible by overloading their servers with illegitimate internet traffic.
“These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host,” the FCC insisted at the time. “These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.”
The outage was preceded by HBO host John Oliver urging viewers to visit the FCC’s website and leave comments opposing the elimination of Obama-era net neutrality protections, and tech experts subsequently predicted the system crashed due to a surge in legitimate web traffic as opposed to a DDoS attack — a finding supported by the OIG report released last week.
Mr. Pai could have debunked the bogus DDoS claim prior to the release of the report last week, he testified Thursday, “but then I would have been accused of stifling an OIG investigation, potentially frustrating a criminal prosecution,” he told senators.
Indeed, the OIG report noted that the watchdog’s investigation found that FCC officials, including Mr. Bray, made false statements to Congress about the outage in possible violation of federal law. The FCC referred the matter to the Department of Justice, but federal prosecutors ultimately declined to press charges.
Fight for the Future, an advocacy group that supports the net-neutrality protections rescinded by Mr. Pai, responded to his testimony Thursday by calling for his resignation.
“Today removed any doubt that Ajit Pai will be remembered as one of the worst FCC Chairs in U.S. history, and he should resign immediately. When pressed on exactly how long he knew the FCC’s alleged cyber attack was fake, Pai shrugged and said his hands were tied,” said the group’s executive director, Sarah Roth-Gaudette. “Sorry Chairman Pai, but refusing to take responsibility doesn’t cut it for us or the American people you serve.”