Just after the federal government shut down Oct. 1, and one of the government’s more dysfunctional agencies stopped functioning altogether, Chinese hackers picked their moment to attack. They waylaid the Federal Election Commission’s networks. They crashed computer systems that publicly disclose how billions of dollars are raised and spent each election cycle by candidates, parties and political action committees. As minutes turned to hours, the FEC found itself largely defenseless against what may be the worst act of sabotage in its 38-year history. The government had furloughed all 339 agency employees, save for the presidentially appointed commissioners, and not even one staffer had been deemed “necessary to the prevention of imminent threats” to federal property, the minimum measure for keeping someone on the job.
And it happened just months after an independent auditor commissioned by the government warned that the FEC’s information systems were at “high risk” to infiltration — a charge the FEC roundly disputed, saying its “systems are secure.”
This hacking ordeal, confirmed by three government officials involved in an ongoing investigation that included the Department of Homeland Security, marks the nadir of a year that ranks among the commission’s darkest, according to a six-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.