The FCC blew past a deadline to respond to questions brought by two U.S. senators over dubious “cyberattack” claims made by agency officials.
In a June letter, Senators Ron Wyden and Brian Schatz questioned FCC Chairman Ajit Pai over issues undermining the integrity of the FCC’s comment system, which, in June 2014 and May 2017, impacted the public’s ability to comment on proposed rulemaking concerning net neutrality. During last year’s episode, the FCC claimed distributed denial-of-service attacks were the cause. It also told several reporters that the incident was similar to attacks experienced by the system in June 2014.
The senators’ questions followed a pair of reports by Gizmodo detailing efforts by FCC officials to push the “cyberattack” narrative, despite a lack of supporting evidence In 2014, when the agency was controlled by Democrats, the FCC determined there was no proof showing a cyberattack occurred. After Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman, took over, the agency changed the official story while trying to support its claim that a cyberattack took down the comment system last year.
Pai has since distanced himself from the FCC’s statements, telling the Washington Post last month: “I’m not an IT expert myself.”
On June 11, Wyden and Schatz asked the FCC to revise or update its previous responses to lawmakers over whether the agency had been targeted by a malicious attack in 2017. “Please answer these questions in writing by June 27, 2018,” the lawmakers said.
That date has come and gone and the FCC has remained silent, while also refusing to answer any press inquiries over the matter. Sen. Wyden’s office contacted the FCC as recently as yesterday to ask if they intended to respond, but as of yet have not heard back, Gizmodo confirmed. The FCC did not respond to a press inquiry asking if it intended to answer the lawmakers’ questions.
The FCC has been publicly criticized by Democratic leaders for ignoring oversight questions from lawmakers. Pai himself was admonished over what the Democrats called a “lack of candor.” (Last year, a Trump-appointed attorney at the U.S. Justice Department issued guidance that states executive agencies, such as the FCC, have no obligation to respond to questions posed by Democrats, who are in the minority, outside of a formal hearing.)
Republican leadership has been criticized for failing to conduct FCC oversight hearings they’d previously agreed to hold. The Energy and Commerce Committee’s majority had agreed to one oversight hearing per quarter; as of last month, four hearings had been skipped. Gizmodo has learned the Democrats are preparing for an oversight hearing, potentially by the end of this month, but nothing is set in stone.
The FCC did not respond when asked if it was preparing to testify before Congress this month.
The FCC has begun to blame some of the issues stemming from its hasty net neutrality repeal on the comment system, which it spent millions of dollars modernizing over the past few years. This week, Pai told two Senators, one of whom was a Republican, that the FCC needed “to rebuild and re-engineer” the comment system to prevent another flood of fake comments using stolen identities.
Update, 8/7/2017: The FCC Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concluded through investigation that there was no cyberattack against the FCC’s comment system in May 2017.
“The May 7-8, 2016 degradation of the FCC’s ECFS was not, as reported to the public and to Congress, the result of a DDoS attack,” the OIG report states. “At best, the published reports were the result of a rush to judgment and the failure to conduct analyses needed to identify the true cause of the disruption to system availability.”