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Seymour Hersh: Iraq election had 30,000 polling places, but only 8,000 poll watchers


Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports in this week's issue of The New Yorker that President Bush authorized covert plans last year to support the election campaigns of Iraqi candidates and political parties with close ties to the White House.

Hersh's article cites unidentified former military and intelligence officials who said the administration had gone ahead with covert election activities in Iraq that "were conducted by retired CIA officers and other nongovernment personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress." Hersh was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: We're joined on the line now by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh, author of the piece. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It's great to have you with us. Well, can you explain exactly what you found?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah. What I found was about a year's worth -- the election took place as you know this January. It was scheduled initially to take place in December, and from my -- I would say from February of last year, 2004, on until the election, we're talking eleven-and-a-half months or so, there was an enormous concern inside the White House and the Pentagon among the [inaudible] the neoconservatives in the Pentagon about what's going to happen, because in February of 2004, we agreed -- the Bush administration agreed with Ayatollah Sistani, the leader of the -- the religious leader of the Shiites, many Shiite factions, in one man, one vote.

And once that decision was made and once -- we needed Sistani's authority, approval, to delay the vote. At that point, we were going to have some sort of a caucus selection process or election process, and the security was so bad it simply couldn't be done. And the thought was if we could delay until January, we could do something about it -- January of this year.

In any case, it was from the very moment the deal was made, there was a lot of concern, frankly, because a lot of the many people in Washington are convinced that the Iranians – that the Iraqis right now, the Shiite Iraqis, many of them, are in league with Iran, as you know, one of the original members of Bush's famous axis of evil. And so there was a concern that by making -- acceding to Sistani's request for one man, one vote, a nation-wide election with the Shiites so much in the predominance just in terms of popularity, population 60%, we were going to give over much of certainly southern Iraq to a Shiite government closely allied with Iran. And that was the issue.

So, they decided -- there was a lot of back and forth about it. There was -- I write about all the attempts made through various election groups, etc., monitoring groups that try and smuggle money into the non-Iranian election groups, election parties, which would, of course, be Iyad Allawi, essentially, who is our sort of strong man, Potemkin village guy, the man that was made, created as the, I guess, as the interim prime minister by us, and Allawi was our guy. And there was a tremendous effort all along to try and do what they can do increase his vote and increase his standing inside Iran -- Iraq, rather.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how exactly did it happen?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I don't know how it happened. What I know is that after they tried to convince the various election groups, the NGOs, the American NGOs, sort of like the N.D.I., National Democratic Institute and others that were training poll watchers and others all throughout 2004, last year, before the election, there was an effort made to get those groups to funnel $40 million or $50 million into Allawi, and they refused.

The President eventually put out a finding, a highly classified finding -- covert finding that under the law, since the 1970s, any time the C.I.A. is authorized to do covert action, clandestine action, the Congress has to be notified, and that finding, by the way, is very broad. It not only referred to Iraq, it referred to sponsoring democracy anywhere in the -- you know, anywhere -- anywhere we thought it was important to do so.

And some people in Congress, particularly I write about Nancy Pelosi from California, the House Democratic leader, she grew up in Baltimore, it turns out. Her father was a -- for 12 years, he was mayor of Baltimore, D’Alexandro. Her brother was mayor later. She grew up in a very, very political family. And she just balked. She said, ‘I'm not going to go along with a presidential finding that authorizes covert action to tilt the election. We -- you know, we didn't have all of these boys die so we can fix an election.’ And Bush backed off at that point, rescinded -- so the White House says -- they rescinded that finding.

What I write is, ‘Are you kidding?’ What I write is that they simply went off the record, off the books on it. In other words, rather than deal with the C.I.A. and money that was appropriated by Congress, they took money -- I can’t -- I don't know from where, one guess would be Iraqi oil money, which we had control of. They took money that had not been appropriated by Congress and put it to work using retired intelligence people and other probably retired military people and others to help generate votes for Allawi. Allawi was running at, oh, 3% or even lower in other polls. 3% during the year. And he improved at the end, because, among other things, the Saudis and the Brits were doing an awful lot right before the election to support him, but nonetheless, in the election, he got 14% or 15%, which was much more than anybody expected.

How did he do it? Well, three or four or five different ways. There was some direct intimidation by Iraqi police of people at the polls telling them how to vote. There was money. There were intelligence, former C.I.A. people who bragged after the election of stuffing ballots. There was also a lot of reports that -- as most people in the audience don't know, the way the election was set up, . So there were a lot of places where there was nobody to monitor. And more importantly, really, there was no ability for the American or international press to go throughout the country. The security wasn't good enough, so you have thousands of polling places to which there were only government people and military people around. Anything could happen.

And what I was told is that the end -- the way it was set up, the poll results in each precinct were to be reported directly to a central headquarters. And after the election polls, you know, the doors closed, you would count the votes and report them. How easy would it be to take ten votes for Allawi and make it 100? This is also something that happened. So through a combination of means, so I was told, Allawi got more votes than he would have gotten normally.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about how several weeks before the election Margaret McDonagh, a political operative close to Tony Blair showed up at the side of Iyad Allawi in campaigning. With money?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, I'm sure. Certainly with a lot of advice. There was a huge amount of money from the -- Allawi was also seen by the Sunni world, that is, particularly the Saudis, who are Sunnis, and the Jordanians and the Egyptians, as a savior, even though he's a secular Shiite. He was obviously somebody who would carry on the traditions of the predominantly dominant Sunni majority in the Ba'athist Party. I mean, there's a tremendous irony here.

The way we saw it, the United States saw it, is Allawi would never get enough votes to win, but you have a large Kurdish vote, a very much larger Shia vote, and if Allawi could get enough votes, he could be the middle man, he could play the power broker, and the United States could keep him in as prime minister. And if you remember, the election results were delayed, and we had Rumsfeld coming into Iraq twice and Condoleezza once, all arguing for a man that represented Allawi, as Allawi did, the worst elements of Saddam, Saddam-lite: brutality, murder. Close -- he was one of the closest advisers of Saddam throughout Saddam's rise in the Ba'ath Party, his murderous rise.

He also has his own -- what we have done is from the very beginning, when we -- the war went in March or April when we seemingly won the war early on in 2003, we were capturing former Makhabarat, members of Saddam's military security units, and retraining them into a secret force that Allawi controlled. So we were basically -- in their visits, Rumsfeld and Rice were, with the most ironies of ironies, were advocating for the continued power and political position of a man who represented the worst of Saddam and also had his own sort of military militia like everybody else did that was composed of Saddam's worst. I mean, talk about hysteria.

So what happened with the Brits is in the end, when there was a lot of concern about Allawi's standing, McDonagh, with a man named Mendelsohn, was sort of the – they were the geniuses of the Labour Party. They were the people who moved the Labour Party to the center and helped Blair get elected and re-elected. Very close to Blair. Blair, as you know, was a more -- moved in from the old traditional Labour Party closer to the middle, which is one factor in his success, sort of like Clinton did, moving more towards the middle as a Democrat.

And also, it's my understanding that McDonagh and others were, when Blair first began as the buildup to the Iraqi war began, they were involved in doing some of the early white papers inside the British government, making the case for Saddam having WMD. Later that activity was taken over by 10 Downing Street, the professionals, but she and others on the outside were doing early drafts of that stuff, very close to Blair. And she was just there at his side in his office, seen by people in his office, not publicly known, but there's no question that she was playing a major role as a political adviser to Allawi in the end.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Seymour Hersh. We have to break for 60 seconds, but then when we come back, I want to ask you about the U.S. saying in response to your article, Washington Post today, that President Bush scrapped the plan before the January vote. That's their response to your piece in The New Yorker magazine. We'll be back with Seymour Hersh in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, his latest piece in The New Yorker magazine is called, "Get Out the Vote: Did Washington Try to Manipulate Iraq's Election, Pour Money Into the Campaign of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi?" The response of the U.S. government, Sy, in yesterday's Washington Post says, “President Bush authorized covert plans last year to support the election campaigns of Iraqis with close ties to the White House, but government and intelligence officials have said the plan was scrapped before the January vote. Some officials with knowledge of the original proposal said the Bush administration backed down after Congressional objections, but others cited concerns within the intelligence community that the effort was likely to backfire.” Your response?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, look, I think just the fact that they made that much of an acknowledgement is pretty amazing because, as you said, this is a president who was publicly saying how fair and open, and the whole issue of whether or not, you know, what we're doing and what the motives are, and this idea that we want to instill democracy, and as I said, the finding was not just limited to Iraq, we're talking about the former Soviet Union, etc. We're doing a lot of talking about restoring democracy. Even the fact they thought about it so long, I think, was a significant acknowledgement.

But look, this is a government that, as I have written about before, has gone off the books. It's gone off the books in the global war on terrorism. By that I mean, we're using -- we're outsourcing operations. The President has decided that he doesn't have to go to Congress for certain kind of operations against would-be terrorists, the renditions and other stuff. We're a operating right now in Africa and East Asia with military units that are doing the work that normally would be done -- snatching people, etc. -- by the C.I.A. under a finding. So, already they have made significant changes in how they operate.

This President has decided that any action that is involved with the war does not have to go to Congress because he is Commander in Chief. This is a legal determination they have made, has the right as Commander in Chief, as I said, to authorize anything in -- any operation that supports the war. They call it actually a -- preparations of the battlefield.

That's been expanded right now, as I understand it, from inside. They determined that any even informational preparation of the battlefield, whatever loose term that is, is something that the President can authorize without going to Congress. So, if they make a determination that there's a national security reason for something to take place, and this is a determination they make by themselves in the White House and in the Pentagon, they don't have to go to Congress for justification or anything. This is going on now. And it's been once I wrote that story, I think January, February in The New Yorker; other newspapers subsequently wrote that indeed it is going on.

What's happened here is that because of heat from Congress, surprising heat, because as you know, most of the time, you know, my big issue with the Congress is I can't decide in any given day whether they are prone or supine. But in this case, Congress stood up and they said, no, we will not let you intervene in the democratic -- that we have gone to war and we're killing American boys and, God knows, killing how many Iraqis for democracy. We are not going to tilt the playing field. Instead of taking that answer, they went off the books. This is what I'm writing about. This is the core.

And, of course, I can’t name the sources. And, of course, the White House is going to say they did not. That doesn't mean I'm right because they denied it. I wouldn't say that. I would just say, let's just wait and see, because as with other stuff I have written, sometimes it takes weeks and months, but in this case, the important distinction right now, the question that should be asked right now, is was that finding limited to Iraq? And the answer is no. Then if you really want to get into the next level, you say, well, what does this mean about what we're doing elsewhere? What else are we doing around the country? Around the world, rather, in terms of supporting democracy? And then you begin to get a lot of very uncomfortable questions, I think, for this White House, for which there won't be immediate answers. I don't mean to alarm everybody. But, you know, we're on a slippery slope here.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy in this?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Actually, these guys were totally stand-up. That's one reason I could do this story. Because for once, I shouldn't say for once, they very clearly all along, particularly in the National Democratic Institute, which is the most -- it's the largest and the most influential of those NGOs who do election stuff around the world. And there have been questions raised about whether they're too close to the administration in Haiti and other places.

In this case, all I can tell you is -- particularly the N.D.I., they were admirable. They refused to get into the game of taking the money that they had been allotted by Congress for the election, and beginning to spread, you know, buy printing presses and cars and other materials for certain parties and not all of them. They all along -- this debate began last spring and lasted until August or September of last year, they all along said we'd love to help out the non-Iranian supported teams if we can only do – you know, political units -- we can only do so if we offer money to everybody.

So that was really very interesting to me. And that's frankly how this story sort of emerged. I initially learned about that issue. And from there, I learned that, of course, it had not been stopped. This is something -- the concern. You have to understand one of the key sort of hawks said to me, you know, ‘The real story that you should be looking at is how could a bunch of guys delude themselves last year after they made the agreement with Ayatollah Sistani into thinking that we could have a one-man, one vote election and the country won't turn over to the Iranians.’

Now, whether or not this is true, whether or not the Iraqis, the Shiite Iraqis or certain elements are that close to Iran is -- that's a whole another issue. And it could be everybody is wrong. But it is true that Iran is -- my own instinct is that Iran would -- if we would talk to Iran in the long run, it's in Iran's very much in their long range interests to have a stable, independent Shiite country that doesn't go religious and doesn't exclude the others. That would be -- that would show the world, particularly the Sunni world, which is very, very worried about what's going on in Shiite Iraq, and you know, the idea of Shiite Iran expanding its influence into Shiite Iraq immediately raises questions about whether the Shiites in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where the most of the oil is, would start agitating.

So you can see, this whole action that we have taken in Iraq has caused enormous concern among the Sunnis that run most of the countries in the Middle East. And it's -- the distress and chaos that we are causing is much more than what you see. God knows, just from your report today of the kind of continued violence, there's an enormous amount, but there's also a very deep misgiving inside the Arab world about what's happening. The Arab world has been turned on its head in a profound way, in ways that nobody can quite understand, and the tensions in the Sunni world about the Shiites and particularly the Shiites expanding into Iraq is just horrific.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, there was a report in the Financial Times right before the election in Iraq -- it was around January 10 -- that said the electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, handed out cash to journalists to insure coverage of the press conferences. Your response to that?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I just don't know that but, you know, when you talk about cash in Iraq, you don't just talk about cash. You talk about pallet loads of cash. There's an awful lot of money. If anybody wanted -- the London Review of Books recently did an amazing -- they took the six last State Department and U.N. reports on the missing cash in Iraq. Twenty billion dollars, much of it Iraqi oil money, has just disappeared, and there's no accounting for it. I shouldn't say all of it has disappeared, but the accounting is very lax.

The corruption of Iraq and the corruption of our military by the dollars around, the invidious and systematic corruption of our military is just beyond belief. And we will pay a price for that in the end, too. You just cannot have that much money around. There were all kinds of colonels -- look, and it just doesn't matter. I'm getting ahead of myself, because I -- I don't want too talk about things I can’t prove, but I can tell you in the London Review of Books in the last issue, the most recent issue, was a very, very serious essay about the extent of financial corruption and how much money simply disappeared from view, and we're not talking about hundreds of millions, we're talking about billions.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, very quickly your response to Rumsfeld announcing the Pentagon intends to move ahead quickly with the military tribunals of two prisoners at Guantanamo?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know -- you know, I just don't know enough about it. I haven't read his response. I'm not in the country right now, so I just don't know about it. I don't want to talk about -- you know, I just don't know.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Westmoreland, one of the main U.S. military leaders during the Vietnam War, retired General William Westmoreland has died at the age of 91. You won your Pulitzer Prize covering Vietnam, exposing a massacre, the My Lai massacre. Your response?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, Peter Davis, the filmmaker, did a marvelous documentary called Hearts and Minds, in which Westmoreland is filmed saying, ‘Well, the Vietnamese’ he said, ‘are not like Americans and us in the West. They don't feel losses. They don't feel. They don’t have the same kind of family feelings we do. Death to them is not like death to us.’ And that's what he said on camera. I'm paraphrasing because it's a 30-year-old memory.

The movie, the documentary, was done in the 1970s, but his suggestion was somehow they're less human than we are. And that kind of institutional racism, which may have something to do with our, you know, the casualness with which we look at the daily atrocities in Iraq. You know, this is a stigma for all of us. And unfortunately, those who say that this is not like Iraq, should just start listening to the way the military in the last six months have begun talking about insurgents killed, 100 insurgents killed here, 80 insurgents killed there. It's all that talk and the same language we had and the body counts back in Vietnam. You know, they are less than real.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. And thank your family for giving us this time on your vacation.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Amy, for you, anything. Bye.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, thanks very much.

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