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Vendetta

The New York Times's obsession with IRI.

11:00 AM, Feb 2, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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ON SATURDAY THE New York Times published an investigation into a "secret U.S. exit poll" in Kenya's 2007 presidential election. In December of that year, Mwai Kibaki defeated Raila Odinga to win a second term as President of Kenya. According to the official results, Kibaki overcame Odinga's pre-election lead in the polls to win by some 200,000 votes, about 2 percent of the total ballots cast. Just three days later, Kibaki was sworn in as violent protests by Odinga supporters spread across the country.

Despite widespread suspicions of fraud, the State Department promptly congratulated Kibaki on his victory, only to retract the statement after the European Union voiced doubts about the integrity of the election. A few days later reports emerged of an unreleased exit poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) that showed Odinga had actually won the race by 8 points.

The New York Times reports that IRI officials in Washington decided "the poll numbers would be kept secret," and that "at least four people" involved in IRI's Kenya operations disputed the official explanation -- a lack of confidence in the numbers -- for withholding the results. However, only one name is provided: Kenneth Flottman, then IRI's director for East Africa. Earlier this month, the Nation magazine likewise accused IRI and the State Department of suppressing the results of the poll because, as one unnamed source described as a "non-American international official" told the magazine, the results were "unpalatable." Again, the only on-the-record source alleging impropriety was Flottman.

The Times has no actual evidence that IRI withheld the results for reasons other than those stated, but according to the paper, IRI's decision "was consistent with other American actions that seemed focused on preserving stability in Kenya, rather than determining the actual winner." This apparent consistency, along with the allegations from Flottman, served as the basis for the third New York Times investigation into IRI's activities in just the last three years. However, this time IRI refused to cooperate with the paper. Officials there have become convinced that the New York Times is incapable of objectivity in its coverage of IRI. Rather than respond directly to the New York Times, IRI contacted THE WEEKLY STANDARD to offer its version of events.

ALTHOUGH IT IS SUBSIDIZED by federal tax dollars, staffed largely by Republicans, and boasted close ties to the Bush administration, IRI is an ostensibly nonpartisan, non-governmental organization that works to spread democracy and build democratic institutions in more than 100 countries. In practice, IRI shares a worldview with the Republican party that places it squarely at odds with left-wing partisans and media.

Congress also funds a Democratic counterpart to IRI, the National Democratic Institute. In countries where both organizations have a presence, they cooperate by dividing the work -- candidate development, polling, election monitoring, etc. -- among themselves. Elsewhere the two will divide a region by country in order to maximize their reach, with IRI working in Mongolia, for example, while NDI establishes a presence in Nepal. "The best we can do in a foreign country is walk into a room together," says Lorne Craner, the current President of IRI. The goal is to help emerging democracies create a system of government where there is a "competition of ideas, and nobody gets shot and nobody goes to jail when one side loses" he said.

While NDI and IRI both operate in Kenya, IRI had been working with and training opposition figures there for years. The organization had a particularly close relationship with Odinga, who had run in 2007 as a democratic reformer with a strong base of support among Kenya's urban poor. As the results of IRI's exit poll leaked out, journalists began to ask why the group had failed to release the numbers before the election was called -- at the very least, the numbers would have complicated Kibaki's efforts to claim victory. Slate ran a story on January 2, 2008, saying that the poll "could have given the [Electoral Commission of Kenya] pause before it called the election so disastrously," and by January 14, the poll's unofficial result -- an 8 point Odinga win -- had been reported by McClatchy.