Federal Politics

Published — September 29, 2015 Updated — October 21, 2015 at 3:08 pm ET

FEC to hackers: We’re ready this time if government shuts down

Chinese cyber vandals waylaid election regulator’s computer systems in 2013


Two years ago, when the federal agencies last shut down because Congress failed to fund them, Chinese hackers successfully attacked the Federal Election Commission’s computer and information technology systems.

The nation’s political campaign and election regulator found itself powerless to the worst act of sabotage in its history: It had furloughed almost every employee at the federal government’s behest.

Since then, the agency has apparently learned its lesson.

If, on Thursday, the government again shuts down, the FEC will have nearly three dozen staffers available to, in large part, defend against cyber threats. Congress, in the meantime, is attempting to advance a last-minute, temporary spending measure ahead of Wednesday’s 11:59 p.m. deadline.

“There will absolutely be a skeleton crew this time to avoid a repeat of the situation in 2013,” FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel told the Center for Public Integrity. “We understand it’s extremely important for crucial IT staff to be available to ensure the information we maintain is kept safe and not hacked.”

Of the FEC’s 327 employees, 294 would be furloughed during a shutdown, according to the FEC’s “plan for agency operations in the absence of the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.”

Alec Palmer, who doubles as the FEC’s staff director and chief information officer, will be among those agency employees who remain on the job.

Palmer would be “authorized to recall to duty any employees necessary to meet unanticipated contingencies related to imminent threats to life or property, including electronic records or data,” the FEC’s shutdown protocol states.

He’d be aided in part by Acting General Counsel Daniel Petalas, who would also avoid furlough, according to the plan.

As political committees, the FEC’s six commissioners — three Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees — would likewise continue working through a shutdown, as they did in 2013.

Among the FEC’s primary duties is making publicly accessible millions of records about how politicians and political committees raise and spend money.

Presidential and congressional elections in 2016 are expected to easily break spending records.

The FEC is scheduled to conduct a public meeting on Thursday, where its agenda is topped by a request from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In it, the Clinton campaign asks for clarity on whether valet parking services and food provided at fundraisers count as in-kind contributions.

The meeting, however, would likely be postponed if the government shuts down.

This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.

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