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FCC Chairman testifies before Congress about falsified cyberattack

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testified before the Senate Oversight Committee on Thursday regarding a cyberattack that the agency had claimed occurred but later turned out to be fabricated. Above, Pai is testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 17 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testified before the Senate Oversight Committee on Thursday regarding his agency's faking a cyberattack as an excuse for website malfunctions. Pai insisted that he was not aware of this lie until he and the inspector general began working on his report, at which time he was bound by confidentiality.

What did the FCC admit to?

Last year, Pai and the Federal Communications Commission were working on repealing net neutrality rules. During that time, "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver dedicated an episode to the topic in support of the existing rules. During the episode, Oliver directed his viewers to go to the FCC's comment page and voice their displeasure with the repeal.

Oliver's show reportedly informed the FCC beforehand about what he planned to do and had even tried to get an interview with Pai for that episode. However, the agency failed to prepare, and the FCC's website was unable to handle the traffic and crashed.

The next day, a statement from FCC Chief Information Officer David Bray said that the issues had not been caused by an increase in traffic at all, and instead were the result of "deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC's comment system" in the form of  "multiple distributed denial-of-service [DDoS] attacks."

This effort to shift the blame for not being ready to handle an increase in traffic during a debate about one of the FCC's most controversial policies backfired enormously. Since DDoS attacks against the U.S. government are a federal crime, this statement immediately triggered an inspector general investigation.

Critics of the agency raised questions about this imaginary incident, which did not seem to fit the profile for past DDoS attacks. But the FCC and Pai insisted that the incident had happened. When the inspector general's report came out Aug. 6, Pai admitted that he now believed the attack never took place but insisted that Bray had led him to believe that it had.

The report asserted that there was no proof of a cyberattack, and that the FCC had  "misrepresented facts and provided misleading responses to Congressional inquiries related to this incident.”

What happened at the hearing?

Pai testified Thursday that he suspected that the cyberattack had never happened, but that he had trusted Bray on this matter. Pai said that he had his chief of staff tell Bray at the time that he suspected John Oliver's show had been behind the issues, but that Bray had replied that he was “99 percent confident” that this was caused by a cyberattack.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked Pai, “At some point before the IG report came out did it occur to you to communicate back with the public that this may not have been a DDoS attack?”

Pai contended that he had wanted to come clean about the false attack, but that by the time he found out the inspector general's investigation was already underway.

“I made the judgment that we had to adhere to the [inspector general’s] request, even though I knew we would be falsely attacked for having done something inappropriate,” Pai insisted

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