Senate eyes executive session on cyberattack angle in air traffic fiasco

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 13) - The Senate may hold a closed-door executive session with the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center to discuss the cyberattack angle in the air traffic management system shutdown on New Year's Day.

"We may call for an executive session with the CICC," Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the committee on public services, said in a text message to CNN Philippines on Friday.

That's a day after the CICC — an attached agency of the Department of Information and Communications Technology — told the Poe-led Senate hearing that it has yet to rule out the possibility that a cyberattack caused the incident that closed off the country's airspace, leaving tens of thousands of travelers stranded.

It was a departure from what was earlier announced by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines.

CICC Undersecretary Alexander Ramos clarified that all they did was an initial, inconclusive investigation, adding that they lacked the tools and equipment to scan the system. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian called for a formal investigation and said he will request more details in an executive session.

READ: CICC: Cyberattack still a possibility in air traffic system mess

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros wants the cybersecurity units of the Armed Forces and the DICT to lead the investigation, instead of the CAAP.

"CAAP's attempts to blame anyone but themselves includes their hasty conclusion that this was not a cyberattack. That is neither within their mandate nor capabilities to announce so," Hontiveros said in a separate statement.

Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who chairs the committee on national defense, said the incident is an eye-opener, recalling the revelation that there's not a single closed-circuit television or CCTV camera in the equipment room of the Communications, Navigation and Surveillance System of the country's Air Traffic Management Center.

"The lack of CCTV in one of the most crucial locations in the airport facility that has the vital equipment of the communication, navigation, surveillance/air traffic management system and the possibility of a cyberattack behind the technical glitch in the NAIA last Jan. 1 magnifies the logistical woes of our country's main gateway," Estrada said.

"While we, lawmakers, try to come up with urgent remedial legislation, I would defer to the experts on the matter of whether or not it was a case of a cyberattack. If so, Congress and the Executive should seriously consider the appropriation of funds for the much-needed upgrade," he added.

Unsatisfied with the CAAP's answers

After a six-hour hearing on Thursday, senators agreed they were still kept in the dark as to what really happened on Jan. 1. At the end of the hearing, Poe called on CAAP employees to speak up if they know anything that would shed light on the incident, and promised to protect them.

"Instead of getting their facts straight for the sake of aviation safety, they again and again attempted to deflect accountability. No critical questions were answered, and only more problems came to light," Hontiveros said.

Hontiveros also wants the first responders summoned to the next hearing.

"We will suggest to the committee that it call in the actual personnel who first observed the issue, that filled up the manual logs, and those who took remedial action like the personnel who bypassed the UPS (uninterrupted power supply). We should hear straight from them," the opposition senator said.

Senate President Juan Miguel "Migz" Zubiri said the chamber has to wait for the results of the forensic investigation on the faulty circuit breaker which the CAAP blames for the system breakdown.

Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva, meanwhile, said it's "too early to say" if CAAP officials should face administrative and criminal charges. Poe agrees.

"Based on our hearing, it was clear that while CAAP believes it has the people and the equipment in place, it has come up short in addressing an incident that started with an apparatus failure. But we are not passing judgment yet as we have yet to conclude the Senate probe," she said.

CAAP Director General Manuel Tamayo earlier said he was willing to file a leave of absence if his continued leadership would cast doubts on the fact-finding efforts and investigations.

Related: CAAP, DOTr eye new backup air traffic management system by Q1 2023