FACT CHECK: Were Election Campaigns Hacked Before 2016?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson said on “Face the Nation” Sunday that the 2016 election cycle wasn’t the first time that presidential campaigns had been infiltrated by cyberattacks.

Verdict: True

Hackers infiltrated the presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Fact Check:

Johnson mentioned previous instances of campaign hacking in response to the House Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference and hacking in the 2016 election. The report found that Russia conducted cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions in 2015 and 2016, and that WikiLeaks played a “key role” in Russia’s influence campaign when it published information stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The report also alleges that the Obama administration did not notify the Trump campaign that several of its officials were considered counterintelligence threats. Johnson believes the right people were informed. He said the DNC was told about attacks on its system, but that the FBI was responsible for the relationship with the Trump campaign.

“This was not the first time, by the way, in 2016, that a campaign had been infiltrated in some way by a cyberattack,” Johnson said. “And typically, law enforcement and DHS will work with a campaign to make sure they take corrective action.”

Both the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns were breached by cyberattacks in 2008. The FBI and Secret Service informed the campaigns of the severity of the hack. “You have been compromised, and a serious amount of files have been loaded off your system,” an agent told the Obama campaign, according to a Newsweek report.

The Obama campaign was hacked through a “phishing” email with a fake agenda for an upcoming meeting. An attachment contained a malware virus that replicated itself throughout the campaign’s computer network. Through the virus, hackers gained access to private campaign emails and internal files.

At the time, the FBI blamed a “foreign entity” or organization for the attack but did not specify where the hack originated. The hackers were thought to want information on policy positions that could be useful in negotiations with future administrations.

U.S. intelligence and former campaign officials revealed in 2013 that they suspected that the Chinese government was responsible for the hack.

“Based on everything I know, this was a case of political cyberespionage by the Chinese government against the two American political parties,” Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence in 2009 and 2010, told NBC News.

McCain campaign staffers noticed that Chinese officials had information about policy positions that were not yet public. McCain had drafted a letter to the president of Taiwan supporting a planned military expansion in the country. Before McCain had sent the letter, Chinese officials criticized McCain’s support for the expansion.

Former intelligence officials told NBC News that the Chinese listened politely when the U.S. condemned the hacks, but they denied any responsibility.

Russian hackers also targeted several Obama campaign staffers in 2008, according to a 2017 report from Area 1 Security. Hacking efforts meant to target political organizations followed some individuals after they left the campaign and joined private companies.

U.S. government systems and elected officials have also been hacked by foreign actors.

In 2006, hackers infiltrated State Department computers in East Asia. The offices of Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Bill Nelson announced that their computers had been comprised in 2006 and 2009. Russian hackers infiltrated the Department of Defense’s unclassified network in 2015.

The State Department decided in 2006 not to use Chinese-made Lenovo computers on its classified networks, fearing that Chinese actors could easily breach them.

Foreign actors have also targeted electoral systems in other countries. Hackers based in Russia repeatedly attacked Ukrainian election systems during its parliamentary elections in 2006. Bulgaria’s former president suspected that Russia was behind a major cyberattack on the Bulgarian election commission on the country’s election day in 2015.

Intelligence officials believe that Russian-backed hackers also infiltrated U.S. state election websites and databases in 2016, but officials do not believe the hack affected vote totals.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter