FCC accused of ‘dereliction of duty’ in failing to dispel cyberattack ‘myth’

Following the issuance of a report from the FCC’s Inspector General essentially saying the reports of cyberattacks on the agency were made up out of whole cloth, several lawmakers are demanding answers from Chairman Ajit Pai.

The report, published last week, reveals that the narrative of an attack against the FCC’s comment system — a narrative the agency has propped up for over a year — had no evidence to support it. The comment system, the record indicates, was simply overwhelmed by people hammering it after becoming aware of net neutrality issues and how they could make their voice heard.

Part of this long-lived mistake was, necessarily, making false statements to the public and Congress, since the latter repeatedly requested more information on the purported attacks. Although federal prosecutors declined to pursue this infraction, the members of Congress to whom Pai repeatedly told untruths have indicated they are not likely to forgive and forget.

Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Mike Doyle (D-PA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) sent a letter (PDF) to Ajit Pai today admonishing him and his office for their failure. Pallone and Doyle particularly have been nipping at the chairman’s heels almost constantly since he took the job, so they have extra cause to be angered by his actions.

Given the significant media, public, and Congressional attention this alleged cyberattack received for over a year, it is hard to believe that the release of the IG’s Report was the first time that you and your staff realized that no cyberattack occurred. Such ignorance would signify a dereliction of your duty as the head of the FCC, particularly due to the severity of the allegations and the blatant lack of evidence.

It is troubling that you allowed the public myth created by the FCC to persist and your misrepresentations to remain uncorrected for over a year… To the extent that you were aware of the misrepresentations prior to the release of the Report and failed to correct them, such actions constitute a wanton disregard for Congress and the American public.

Chairman Pai does have a legitimate excuse to a certain extent in that the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General had requested that the agency keep quiet about its investigation while it was ongoing. So we may fairly say that Pai and his office may have in some ways had their hands tied.

But clearly I am not the only one who finds that inadequate justification for the FCC’s behavior. To cling to an explanation, with no evidence, provided by a person (the former chief information officer) apparently distrusted by Pai as a partisan and who left in October 2017 — to cling to it so completely and give no word at all that there was perhaps another explanation? It doesn’t make sense.

As the members of Congress write, it’s inconceivable that Pai and his office were unaware of the doubts regarding and material deficiencies of the cyberattack story. That would be a major failure of one kind. And if they were aware and didn’t say so under direct congressional inquiry, that’s a failure of another kind.

The letter asks for Pai to explain:

  • When his office first became aware that the events of last May were possibly not an attack
  • Why the FCC’s previous statements to the public and Congress have not been publicly amended
  • What exactly the Inspector General told Pai not to discuss or disclose during the investigation

The FCC is given two weeks (until August 28) to respond to these and other questions.