Massive Chinese Hacking Attack on FEC Computers Exposes Deep Agency Dysfunction

Thursday, December 19, 2013
(photo: Sarah Whitmire, Center for Public Integrity)

Few Americans would argue that the “D” in Washington, DC, might well stand for “dysfunction”—but it’s especially true when it comes to one government agency in particular: the Federal Election Commission (FEC).


The FEC has been something of a mess for quite some time, due to partisan infighting among its commissioners and lack of help from Congress or the White House. There are six commissioners and no more than three can be from the same party.


But things took a turn for the truly ugly during the government shutdown in October, when Chinese hackers took advantage of federal employees being furloughed, leaving no one around at the FEC to mind its computer network. Indeed, every one of its 339 employees had been sent home.


The cyber-attack—possibly the worst act of sabotage in its four-decade history—reportedly crippled the commission’s systems that inform the public about the billions of dollars raised and spent each election cycle by candidates, parties and political action committees.


It would seem the FEC could have done something to prevent the hacking, had its leaders taken an independent auditor’s suggestions months earlier to reduce the network’s “high risk” to being infiltrated. But they didn’t because in their estimation the systems were “secure.”


These days the FEC is anything but secure, whether it’s the damaged computers or the general state of its operations.


According to a six-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, the FEC suffers from:


  • Political paralysis that has prevented commissioners from taking action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
  • A lack of funding after years of no budget increases, as well as reductions in staff, which have reached a 15-year low.
  • Poor morale among staff, causing many key employees to leave for other opportunities.
  • A backlog of nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases and a 250-million-page backlog of disclosure reports yet to be reviewed.


Two new commissioners, Republican Lee Goodman and Democrat Ann Ravel, have pledged to work together and strengthen the FEC once they take over as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, next year.


But many observers doubt whether any real change or improvement can come about at the commission.


“The commission just seems to look inward and almost wonder aloud if a decision has an ideological impact, and if so, they shy away from it,” Frank P. Reiche, a Republican who served as an FEC commissioner from 1979 to 1985, told the Center for Public Integrity. “It’s sad—very sad—and the agency is almost doomed to failure for carrying out its statutory mission unless reform measures are implemented and adopted by Congress.”


“The agency is rotting from the inside out,” wrote the Center’s Dave Levinthal. “Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to ‘prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.’”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

How Washington Starves its Election Watchdog (by Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity)

Incoming FEC Bosses Pledge to Work Together Following Blistering Center Report (by Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity)

Will the Federal Election Commission Ever Work Again? (by Jonathan D. Salant, Bloomberg)

Terms for All Members of Federal Election Commission have Expired (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)     

Court Orders Federal Election Commission to Stop Stonewalling Information Requests (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)          

Federal Election Commission Accused of Deleting Campaign Donor Records from 2008 Election (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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