The New Yorker: PRINTABLES
GET OUT THE VOTE
by SEYMOUR M. HERSH
Did Washington try to manipulate Iraq’s election?
Issue of 2005-07-25
The January 30th election in Iraq was publicly perceived as a political triumph for George W. Bush and a vindication of his decision to overturn the regime of Saddam Hussein. More than eight million Iraqis defied the threats of the insurgency and came out to vote for provincial councils and a national assembly. Many of them spent hours waiting patiently in line, knowing that they were risking their lives. Images of smiling Iraqis waving purple index fingers, signifying that they had voted, were transmitted around the world. Even some of the President’s harshest critics acknowledged that he might have been right: democracy, as he defined it, could take hold in the Middle East. The fact that very few Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein, chose to vote was seen within the Administration as a temporary setback. The sense of victory faded, however, amid a continued political stalemate, increased violence, and a hardening of religious divides. After three months of bitter sectarian infighting, a government was finally formed. It is struggling to fulfill its primary task: to draft a new constitution by mid-August.
Whether the election could sustain its promise had been in question from the beginning. The Administration was confronted with a basic dilemma: The likely winner of a direct and open election would be a Shiite religious party. The Shiites were bitter opponents of Saddam’s regime, and suffered under it, but many Shiite religious and political leaders are allied, to varying degrees, with the mullahs of Iran. As the election neared, the Administration repeatedly sought ways—including covert action—to manipulate the outcome and reduce the religious Shiite influence. Not everything went as planned.
The initial election plan, endorsed in late 2003 by Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, involved a caucus system in which the C.P.A. would be able to exert enormous influence over the selection of a transitional government. Each major ethnic group—the Shiites, who represent sixty per cent of the population; the Sunnis, with twenty per cent; and the Kurds, with around fifteen per cent—would have a fixed number of seats in a national assembly. The U.S. hoped to hold the election before the transfer of sovereignty, which was scheduled for June 30, 2004, but the lack of security made the deadline unrealistic. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of one of the Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or sciri, agreed to accept a delay, as the U.S. wanted, in return for the White House’s commitment to hold a direct one-man, one-vote election. President Bush agreed. It was a change in policy that many in the Administration feared would insure a Shiite majority in the new assembly.
The obstacles to a free election, in a country with shallow democratic roots, suffering from years of dictatorship, a foreign invasion, and an insurgency, were immense. As Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the C.P.A., warned Bremer in a March, 2004, memorandum, “Political parties that have never contested democratic elections before tend to fall back upon their worst instincts and experience. They buy votes, and frequently they buy electoral officials. . . . They use armed thugs to intimidate opposition, and even to assassinate opponents. . . . They may use force and fraud to steal or stuff the ballot boxes.”
In a second memo, Diamond noted that sciri and Dawa, the other major Shiite party, as well as more militant Shiite paramilitary groups, were believed to be receiving funding and training from Iran. “Most of the other political parties complain of the difficulty of finding the financial resources to organize, mobilize support, and prepare to contest elections,” Diamond wrote. “Several have appealed directly, if discreetly, for some kind of international assistance, including from the United States.”
He urged Bremer to set up a transparent fund that would distribute operating cash equitably to all political parties. “Alternative mechanisms to level the playing field are unlikely to work,” Diamond wrote. Specifically, he argued against giving money covertly to favored parties, such as the slate controlled by Iyad Allawi, the acting Prime Minister, a secular Shiite, who was a staunch American ally. During the Cold War, he noted in his second memo, the United States “channeled covert resources to political parties that appeared more moderate and democratic, and more pro-Western. That is no longer possible or sensible.”
Diamond received no official response from Bremer or from Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, to whom he forwarded the memorandums. In his recent book, “Squandered Victory,” Diamond, who had previously worked with Rice, argued that the Bush Administration bungled the occupation. In April, he returned to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is a senior fellow.
In his meetings with political leaders in Iraq before the election, Diamond told me, “I said, matter-of-factly, that of course the United States could not operate the way we did in the Cold War. We had to be fair and transparent in everything we did, if we were really interested in promoting democracy—I took it as simply an article of faith.”
By the late spring of 2004, according to officials in the State Department, Congress, and the United Nations, the Bush Administration was engaged in a debate over the very issue that Diamond had warned about: providing direct support to Allawi and other parties seen as close to the United States and hostile to Iran. Allawi, who had spent decades in exile and worked both for Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat and for Western intelligence agencies, lacked strong popular appeal. The goal, according to several former intelligence and military officials, was not to achieve outright victory for Allawi—such an outcome would not be possible or credible, given the strength of the pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties—but to minimize the religious Shiites’ political influence. The Administration hoped to keep Allawi as a major figure in a coalition government, and to do so his party needed a respectable share of the vote.
The main advocate for channelling aid to preferred parties was Thomas Warrick, a senior adviser on Iraq for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who was backed, in this debate, by his superiors and by the National Security Council. Warrick’s plan involved using forty million dollars that had been appropriated for the election to covertly provide cell phones, vehicles, radios, security, administrative help, and cash to the parties the Administration favored. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor resisted this plan, and turned to three American non-governmental organizations that have for decades helped to organize and monitor elections around the world: the National Democratic Institute (N.D.I.), the International Republican Institute (I.R.I.), and the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.).
“It was a huge debate,” a participant in the discussions told me. “Warrick said he had gotten the Administration principals”—senior officials of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council—“to agree.” The N.G.O.s “were fighting a rearguard action to get this election straight,” and emphasized at meetings that “the idea of picking favorites never works,” he said.
“There was a worry that a lot of money was being put aside in walking-around money for Allawi,” the participant in the discussions told me. “The N.G.O.s said, ‘We don’t do this—and, in any case, it’s crazy, because if anyone gets word of this manipulation it’ll ruin what could be a good thing. It’s the wrong way to do it.’ The N.G.O.s tried to drive a stake into the heart of it.”
Over the summer and early fall of 2004, the N.G.O.s arranged meetings with several senior officials, including John Negroponte, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. A pattern developed, the participant in the discussions said. The N.G.O.s, he recounted, would say, “We’re not going to work with this if there’s people out there passing around money. We will not be part of any covert operation, and we need your word that the election will be open and transparent,” and the officials would reassure them. Within weeks of a meeting, the N.G.O.s would “still hear word of a Track II—a covert group,” the participant said. “The money was to be given to Allawi and others.”
A European election expert who was involved in planning the Iraqi election recalled that Warrick “was always negative about the Shiites and their ties to the Iranians. He thought he could manipulate the election by playing with the political process, and he pushed the N.G.O.s on it really hard.”
Les Campbell, the regional director of the N.D.I. for the Middle East and North Africa, told me that he immediately realized “how deep the American desire to do something to help Allawi was.” Campbell acknowledged that he and his colleagues had kept up a running dispute with Warrick. At first, it seemed that the N.G.O.s had won, and the forty million dollars was given in grants for the N.G.O.s to help plan and monitor the election. But the pressure from the Administration to provide direct support for specific parties was unrelenting, and Warrick’s idea didn’t go away. As the campaign progressed, Campbell said, “It became clear that Allawi and his coalition had huge resources, although nothing was flowing through normal channels. He had very professional and very sophisticated media help and saturation television coverage.”
The focus on Allawi, Campbell said, blinded the White House to some of the realities on the ground. “The Administration was backing the wrong parties in Iraq,” he said. “We told them, ‘The parties you like are going to get creamed.’ They didn’t believe it.”
“What Tom Warrick was trying to do was not stupid,” a senior United Nations official who was directly involved in planning for the Iraqi election told me. “He was desperate, because Bremer and the White House had empowered the Iranians. Warrick was trying to see what could be salvaged.” He added that the answer, as far as the United States was concerned, was Allawi, who, despite his dubious past, was “the nearest thing to an Iraqi with whom the White House could salvage the nation.”
A State Department official confirmed that there was an effort to give direct funding to certain candidates. “The goal was to level the playing field, and Allawi was not the sole playing field,” he said. Warrick was not operating on his own, the State Department official said. “This issue went to high levels, and was approved”—within the State Department and by others in the Bush Administration, in the late spring of 2004. “A lot of people were involved in it and shared the idea,” including, he claimed, some of the N.G.O. operatives working in Iraq. He added, “The story that should be written is why the neoconservatives and others in the U.S. government who were hostile to Iran had this blind spot when it came to the election”—that is, why they endorsed a process that, as Warrick and his colleagues saw it, would likely bring pro-Iranian parties to power.
In any case, the State Department official said, Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell, put an end to Warrick’s efforts in the early fall. Armitage confirmed this, and told me that he believed that he was carrying out the President’s wishes. “There was a question at a principals’ meeting about whether we should try and change the vote,” Armitage recalled, and the President said several times, “We will not put our thumb on the scale.”
Nonetheless, in the same time period, former military and intelligence officials told me, the White House promulgated a highly classified Presidential “finding” authorizing the C.I.A. to provide money and other support covertly to political candidates in certain countries who, in the Administration’s view, were seeking to spread democracy. “The finding was general,” a recently retired high-level C.I.A. official told me. “But there’s no doubt that Baghdad was a stop on the way. The process is under the control of the C.I.A. and the Defense Department.”
It is not known why the President would reject one program to intervene in the election and initiate another, more covert one. According to Pentagon consultants and former senior intelligence officials, there was a growing realization within the White House that most Sunnis would indeed boycott the election. Getting accurate polls in a country under occupation, with an active insurgency, was, of course, difficult. But the available polls showed Allawi’s ratings at around three or four per cent through most of 2004, and also showed the pro-Iranian Shiite slate at more than fifty per cent. The Administration had optimistically assumed that the political and security situation would improve, despite warnings from the intelligence community that it would not.
A former senior intelligence official told me, “The election clock was running down, and people were panicking. The polls showed that the Shiites were going to run off with the store. The Administration had to do something. How?”
By then, the men in charge of the C.I.A. were “dying to help out, and make sure the election went the right way,” the recently retired C.I.A. official recalled. It was known inside the intelligence community, he added, that the Iranians and others were providing under-the-table assistance to various factions. The concern, he said, was that “the bad guys would win.”
Under federal law, a finding must be submitted to the House and Senate intelligence committees or, in exceptional cases, only to the intelligence committee chairs and ranking members and the Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress. At least one Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, strongly protested any interference in the Iraqi election. (An account of the dispute was published in Time last October.) The recently retired C.I.A. official recounted angrily, “She threatened to blow the whole thing up in the press by going public. The White House folded to Pelosi.” And, for a time, “she brought it to a halt.” Pelosi would not confirm or deny this account, except, in an e-mail from her spokesman, to “vigorously” deny that she had threatened to go public. She added, “I have never threatened to make any classified information public. That’s against the law.” (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)
The essence of Pelosi’s objection, the recently retired high-level C.I.A. official said, was: “Did we have eleven hundred Americans die”—the number of U.S. combat deaths as of last September—“so they could have a rigged election?”
Sometime after last November’s Presidential election, I was told by past and present intelligence and military officials, the Bush Administration decided to override Pelosi’s objections and covertly intervene in the Iraqi election. A former national-security official told me that he had learned of the effort from “people who worked the beat”—those involved in the operation. It was necessary, he added, “because they couldn’t afford to have a disaster.”
A Pentagon consultant who deals with the senior military leadership acknowledged that the American authorities in Iraq “did an operation” to try to influence the results of the election. “They had to,” he said. “They were trying to make a case that Allawi was popular, and he had no juice.” A government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon’s civilian leaders said, “We didn’t want to take a chance.”
I was informed by several former military and intelligence officials that the activities were kept, in part, “off the books”—they were conducted by retired C.I.A. officers and other non-government personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress. Some in the White House and at the Pentagon believed that keeping an operation off the books eliminated the need to give a formal briefing to the relevant members of Congress and congressional intelligence committees, whose jurisdiction is limited, in their view, to officially sanctioned C.I.A. operations. (The Pentagon is known to be running clandestine operations today in North Africa and Central Asia with little or no official C.I.A. involvement.)
“The Administration wouldn’t take the chance of doing it within the system,” the former senior intelligence official said. “The genius of the operation lies in the behind-the-scenes operatives—we have hired hands that deal with this.” He added that a number of military and intelligence officials were angered by the covert plans. Their feeling was “How could we take such a risk, when we didn’t have to? The Shiites were going to win the election anyway.”
In my reporting for this story, one theme that emerged was the Bush Administration’s increasing tendency to turn to off-the-books covert actions to accomplish its goals. This allowed the Administration to avoid the kind of stumbling blocks it encountered in the debate about how to handle the elections: bureaucratic infighting, congressional second-guessing, complaints from outsiders.
The methods and the scope of the covert effort have been hard to discern. The current and former military and intelligence officials who spoke to me about the election operation were unable, or unwilling, to give precise details about who did what and where on Election Day. These sources said they heard reports of voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, bribery, and the falsification of returns, but the circumstances, and the extent of direct American involvement, could not be confirmed.
And, as Larry Diamond noted, there was also a strong possibility that Iraqis themselves would attempt voter fraud, with or without assistance from the U.S. According to the government consultant with close ties to Pentagon civilians, the C.P.A. accepted the reality of voter fraud on the part of the Kurds, whom the Americans viewed as “the only blocking group against the Shiites’ running wild.” He said, “People thought that by looking the other way as Kurds voted—man and wife, two times—you’d provide the Kurds with an incentive to remain in a federation.” (Kurdistan had gained partial autonomy before Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, and many Kurds were agitating for secession.)
The high-ranking United Nations official told me, “The American Embassy’s aim was to make sure that Allawi remained as Prime Minister, and they tried to do it through manipulation of the system.” But he also said that there was cheating on the other side. “The Shiites rigged the election in the south as much as ballots were rigged for Allawi.” He added, “You are right that it was rigged, but you did not rig it well enough.”
Several weeks before the election, Margaret McDonagh, a political operative close to Tony Blair, showed up at Allawi’s side in Baghdad, and immediately got involved in a last-minute barrage of campaigning, advertising, and spending. (McDonagh did not respond to a request for comment.) These efforts, and Allawi’s own attempt to present himself as a forceful Prime Minister, apparently helped to raise his standing. In one American poll, he came close to nine per cent in the days before the election.
A second senior U.N. official, who was also involved in the Iraqi election, told me that for months before the election he warned the C.P.A. and his superiors that the voting as it was planned would not meet U.N. standards. The lack of security meant that candidates were unwilling to campaign openly, as in a normal election, for fear of becoming targets. Candidates ran as members of party lists, but the parties kept most of the names on their lists secret during the campaign, so voters did not even know who was running. The electorate was left, in most cases, with little basis for a decision beyond ethnic and religious ties. The United Nations official said, “The election was not an election but a referendum on ethnic and religious identity. For the Kurds, voting was about selfdetermination. For the Shiites, voting was about a fatwa issued by Sistani.”
Some of the Americans working with the Administration on Iraq assumed that, once the Presidential election was over, Bush would delay the vote until security improved and more Sunnis could be brought in. In a Times Op-Ed piece published in late September, Noah Feldman, a consultant on constitutional issues for the C.P.A., warned that “without Sunni participation, the election results would be worse than useless. . . . Nobody expects perfection, but trying to rush ahead to democracy will increase the chances that we will never get there at all.”
Feldman, who teaches at New York University Law School, told me that the Administration rejected this advice. “The neocons were true believers,” Feldman said, referring to the senior civilian leadership in the Pentagon, “and they focussed on building an Iraq with no ethnicity and religion. They didn’t realize that the President believes what you tell him”—that the election would diminish sectarian strife.
On Election Day, the weaknesses of the system and the potential for abuse were evident. The lack of security, which has severely restricted the ability of reporters to travel in Iraq, caused many international organizations that normally monitor elections to stay away. The European Union declined to send a delegation. An election expert who was in Iraq told me that he knew of only two international observers in the country on Election Day, one of whom was in the Green Zone. Most observers were Iraqis who had recently been trained by the American N.G.O.s or were affiliated with political parties.
The government consultant said that while the N.G.O.s had deployed most of the poll watchers to Shiite and Kurdish areas, fraud on Allawi’s behalf took place in the Sunni areas. He added, “You never have enough observers in any election, and so how do you maximize their effectiveness? You never announce in advance where they’re going. But in Iraq the people on the inside tipped them off,” referring to the Iraqis and American operatives who were involved in manipulating the election. “They knew where the observers would and would not go.”
One of the most scrutinized areas was in and around the ethnically mixed city of Mosul, in Nineveh Province. The election expert depicted the situation there as chaotic. Ballot boxes from four hundred and fifty polling stations flooded into a regional center that had been set up at the last minute because of security concerns. Many boxes had apparently been filled with bundles of ballots, “nicely arranged,” before they were sealed, he said. Some ballots were simply dropped off in cardboard boxes. The process was marked by questionable counting and sloppy recordkeeping. It was, he said, “woefully inadequate.”
An after-action assessment from Mosul forwarded to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (I.E.C.I.) concluded that approximately forty per cent of the ballots in the Mosul area could not “be allocated to a specific polling station”—in other words, it was not possible to determine which station they had come from. The report estimated that at least ten per cent of the hundreds of ballot boxes had been stuffed.
Two American election officials who were in Iraq acknowledged that there were problems but said that, at least in areas where observers were present, they were able to prevent many disputed ballots from being counted. An American who served as an adviser to the I.E.C.I. told me that he knew of three hundred questionable boxes from Mosul that “were excluded—never counted.” There was cause for concern, both agreed, in the areas where, for security reasons, many observers could not be sent, especially in the Sunni regions.
Farid Ayar, a spokesman for the I.E.C.I., said, “I can assure you that neither the U.S. nor any other foreign nation intervened in our pure and honest election. I know of no such allegations.” When asked about fraud by domestic parties, he added, “You can’t check that. Maybe in a village somewhere somebody gave someone fifty dollars to vote for a candidate. It happens in most of the Third World countries. You don’t know—maybe it happens, maybe not.”
In retrospect, Les Campbell, of the N.D.I., told me, “we’re really proud of what we did. In the end, the election was administered as well as it could have been, and the Iraqi citizens became convinced that there was a reason to vote. Yes, there were problems, but engaging in the democratic process is important.” He added, “We did our best, and we don’t know if anything that happened would have had a substantial effect on the election.”
The final election totals were announced twelve days after the voting, and they contained some surprises and anomalies. The pro-Iranian Shiites did worse than anticipated, with forty-eight per cent of the vote—giving them far less than the two-thirds of the assembly seats needed to form a government and thus control the writing of the constitution. Allawi’s slate did well, at least compared with his standing in earlier polls, gathering nearly fourteen per cent. The Kurds won twenty-six per cent of the vote. They had undoubtedly benefitted from a large, coördinated, and legitimate turnout. But the Turkmen and the Arabs, two minority groups in Kurdistan, held public protests accusing the I.E.C.I. of mismanagement and fraud, and demanded new elections.
Ghassan Atiyyah, a secular Shiite who worked on the State Department’s postwar planning project before the invasion of Iraq and is now the director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, in Baghdad, told me that he and many of his associates believed that Allawi’s surprisingly strong showing “was due to American manipulation of the election. There’s no doubt about it. The Americans, directly or indirectly, spent millions on Allawi.” Atiyyah went on, “As an Iraqi who supported the use of force to overthrow Saddam, I can tell you that as long as real democratic practices are not adhered to, you Americans cannot talk about democracy.”
On Election Day, voters had been handed ballots for the national assembly and for the provincial councils. Allawi’s slate ran provincial lists in only eight provinces and received a total of 177,678 provincial votes in those areas. In the same provinces, Allawi’s national list received a total of 452,629 votes—almost three times the number of provincial votes.
Most election experts I spoke to found the deviation surprising and difficult to explain. The State Department official, however, said that Allawi “had no organized campaign in the provinces, and the people he was running with locally had no appeal.” The official then raised questions about possible irregularities in the Shiite vote. “Opinion polls consistently showed that Dawa candidates were beating the sciri party by two to one,” he said. “In the actual election, in some provinces sciri beat Dawa two to one.” Allawi’s results, he said, “may not be a unique skewing—sciri may have done it, too.”
A few weeks after the election, a European intelligence official, having acknowledged that he had heard allegations of voter fraud, told me, “The question will be: How will the elections be perceived in Iraq? As legitimate and fair? Or not?”
The election results made it necessary for the parties to form a coalition, as the Bush Administration had anticipated, and the U.S. initially lobbied for a major political role for Allawi. But Allawi, who had continued to serve as the acting Prime Minister, got no post when the new Iraq government was formed, in late April—demonstrating anew the limits of America’s ability to control events in Iraq. Ibrahim al-Jafaari, of the Dawa party, became Prime Minister, and a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, became President.
In recent weeks, the Shiite and Kurdish leadership has agreed to put more Sunnis on the commission that is writing the constitution. The Shiite community is likely to limit their influence. Still, some observers, such as Noah Feldman, believe that the Sunnis on the commission “are going to try very hard to bring on board the serious players who can speak for the Sunni side of the insurgency”—beginning a process that could lead to stability in Iraq.
If this takes place, the election may still be judged a success. But what the Administration accomplished in its interventions is questionable. The efforts to reduce the Shiites’ plurality, if they had any effect, only delayed their formation of a government, contributing to the instability and disillusionment that have benefitted the insurgency in recent months. The election outcome also strengthened the political hand of the Kurds, who have demanded more autonomy and refused to disband their powerful militias.
In early July, Jafaari stunned Washington by signing an extensive pact with Iran—a nation that President Bush named as part of an axis of evil. The deal reportedly included a billion dollars in military and reconstruction aid. At a joint press conference in Tehran, Ali Shamkhani, the Iranian Defense Minister, said, “It’s a new chapter in our relations with Iraq.”