Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Election Suspicions (My Last UPI Column)

A week after the 2004 Presidential election, as evidence accumulated that vote tallies in some states might have been manipulated, I forwarded my latest commentary to United Press International. I’d been working with UPI for a while, and wanted to lay out some of the information that wasn’t making it into newspapers or onto cable news. It turned out to be my last column for the wire service.

Voting analysis of selected precincts in Florida and Ohio revealed surprisingly high percentages for Bush, I noted, and critics were claiming that spoiled ballots and provisional votes, both disproportionately affecting minorities, could have made the difference in at least two states. On Election Day, exit polls showed John Kerry rolling to a clear victory nationally and carrying most of the battleground states, including Florida and Ohio. Polling also showed Republicans carrying the bulk of the tight Senate races. When the official results were tallied, however, the presidential exit polls proved wrong while the Senate polls were correct.

Exit polling gave Kerry a 3 percent lead over Bush in Florida and a 4 percent edge in Ohio, I noted. Yet he ended up losing Florida by 5.2 percent and Ohio by 2.5. That made the spread between the Florida poll and results 8.2 percent, more than double the standard error rate. In Ohio, the difference was 5.6 percent, also beyond the norm. In Baker County, Florida, with 12,887 registered voters, 69.3 percent of them Democrats and 24.3 Republicans, the vote was only 2,180 for Kerry and 7,738 for Bush. That was the opposite of what happened everywhere else in the country. In Dixie County, with 4,988 registered voters, 77.5 percent of them Democrats and 15 percent Republicans, only 1,959 voted for Kerry while 4,433 supposedly picked Bush. Other small counties showed the same unusual outcome, and all the “irregularities” seemed to favor Bush.

Few news outlets pursued the story. Instead, most of the coverage was focusing on why the exit polling system had failed. Talking heads dismissed the polls as flawed, somehow favoring Kerry, and irrelevant to the outcome. To explain the discrepancies, some unconvincing theories were floated. One was offered by the architects of the sampling system used for exit polling. They claimed Kerry voters were simply more willing to answer the questions. It was labeled the “chattiness thesis,” but it sounded like a weak excuse.

Journalist Greg Palast suggested that the election results had been skewed by “spoilage,” the small part of the vote that was voided and thrown away. Others pointed to the legal challenges in several states, the long evening lines, and the large number of provisional ballots. But some went further, claiming to have evidence that the results, at the very least in Florida, had been manipulated through some form of information warfare.

Thus, the original lead of my UPI column, distributed under the title “Lingering Suspicions,” began this way:

Could sophisticated CIA-style “cyber-warfare” have helped George W. Bush change a three percent defeat, as measured by exit polls, into a victory of about the same margin? It’s possible, at least in theory, and some people already think it may have happened here.

There is as yet no solid proof that such a cyber-attack occurred on Nov, 2. For one thing, it would probably require hacking into multiple local computer systems, presumably from one or more remote locations. Nevertheless, suspicions are mounting to suggest that the US presidential election results were manipulated to some extent.

The gatekeepers at UPI weren’t pleased. Even though it was just a commentary, they wouldn’t publish it unless I agreed to change the lead and downplay the “cyber-warfare” angle. The opening sentence they substituted was this:

The Internet, that wonderful engine of democracy, is rife with messages purporting to demonstrate how the U.S. presidential election results were manipulated in ways benefiting the Republicans.

My suspicions had been transformed into a skeptical comment about the reliability of questions being posed in cyberspace. More troubling, the entire section of the column that explained how a cyber-attack might be accomplished was eliminated. Here’s what I wrote:

Could it be pulled off? As far as we know, the CIA’s successes in cyber-war include targeting specific bank accounts and shutting down computer systems. But stealing an election is considerably more difficult, requiring the alteration of data in many computers.

According to Robert Parry, writing for Consortium News, "a preprogrammed ‘kernel of brain’ would have to be inserted into election computers beforehand, or teams of hackers would be needed to penetrate the lightly protected systems, targeting touch-screen systems without a paper backup for verifying the numbers."

It’s a form of "information warfare," a hot item within the U.S. military since the mid-1990. The Pentagon has even produced a 13-page booklet, "Information Warfare for Dummies." Indirectly, this primer acknowledges considerable secret capabilities in these areas. It also recognizes the sensitivity of the topic. "Due to the moral, ethical and legal questions raised by hacking, the military likes to keep a low profile on this issue," it explains.

So, did it happen here? Perhaps time will tell. But as the Pentagon readily admits, cyber-warfare has considerable advantages over other tactics. "The intrusions can be carried out remotely, transcending the boundaries of time and space," the manual explains.

And, best of all, if the fraud is ever discovered, there is such a technological buffer between those responsible and those doing the deed you might say it’s the state-of-the-art in plausible deniability.

After the sanitized version of my column was published – even though charges of voter fraud continued to snowball – UPI lost interest in any future contributions.

Next: Democracy in Lockdown

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