Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai today defended his year-long public insistence that the FCC was the victim of a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attack which impacted its electronic comment filing system during the agency’s net neutrality rulemaking proceeding last year, but admitted to having his own doubts about the cause of the system problem.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Pai was questioned by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, about an FCC Inspector General report issued earlier this month that found no evidence of a DDoS attack, but instead found that the agency’s comment system was overwhelmed by a large volume of people attempting to file comments in the proceeding.

At the time the IG report was released, Chairman Pai blamed the agency’s former chief information officer for providing “inaccurate information” regarding the cause of the problem, and asserted that the IG report debunked “the conspiracy theory that my office or I had any knowledge that the information provided by the former CIO was inaccurate and was allowing that inaccurate information to be disseminated for political purposes.”

In response to questions from Schatz today, Pai said he “did have doubts” last May that the FCC was hit by a DDoS attack.  However, he said he asked FCC officials including the former CIO about the cause of the system problem, and was told the CIO was “99 percent confident” that the problem was caused by such an attack.

Chairman Pai said earlier this month that he did not publicly voice doubts about the alleged attack because the agency IG had opened its investigation into the matter and asked Pai to keep that matter confidential.  He elaborated on that chain of events in his testimony today.

Pai said he was told in January 2018 by the agency’s inspector general that the former CIO’s statement as to the cause of the system failure was not accurate, but that he was asked to say nothing about that because the IG probe was ongoing and because the matter was also being referred to the Justice Department “for potential criminal” referral.

“It was very hard to stay quiet…We wanted to get this story out,” Pai told senators.  “I made the judgement that we had to honor the OIG’s request,” he said.

Asked whether there was any other way to let committee members in on the secret in light of the committee’s role in overseeing the FCC, Pai responded, “I could have done it, but then would have been accused of stifling an OIG investigation.”

Elsewhere during today’s committee hearing Pai and the FCC’s other three commissioners fielded numerous questions about what the agency is doing to promote greater broadband service deployment to underserved areas, and actions the agency is taking to make spectrum available for 5G wireless services.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.