Over the weekend I finally received the first documents from the State Department’s Africa Bureau from my September 2009 Freedom of Information Act request for State Department documents about the 2007 Exit Poll for the Kenyan Elections. This is the exit poll funded by the USAID, through the International Republican Institute (IRI) that I managed as East Africa Director for IRI. By letter dated March 5 (the day after the new Kenyan election) but not mailed for another week, the State Department released five documents, while stating that it was withholding one unidentified document in full “because it consists of pre-decisional deliberative process material.”
Long story short:
1) as described by the Embassy, “auxiliary to efforts in this regard by Kenya’s vibrant press, active civil society, and credible, proven electoral commission,” the U.S. government undertook several efforts to “preserve Kenya’s democratic success and contain the prospects of violence and voting irregularities if the presidential election is tight.”
2) one of these efforts was “Public Opinion Polling” described as follows:
* This USAID-funded program seeks to increase the availability of objective and reliable polling data and to provide an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls. Implementer: IRI
3) after this same Exit Poll became a source of political contention because it showed the opposition candidate winning rather than the incumbent as named by the “credible, proven electoral commission”–the Africa Bureau engaged in a practice of mischaracterizing the USAID program and the Exit Poll.
For example: when the McClatchy newspapers ran a story on July 9, 2008 by Shashank Bengali reporting that “Kenya’s President Lost Disputed Election, Poll Shows” after the release of the exit poll results by the researchers from The University of California, San Diego at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Africa Bureau generated “AF Press Guidance” as follows:
Q: Please provide details on the U.S.-funded exit poll for elections in Kenya. Do we have a comment/reaction to the poll results?
* The International Republican Institute (IRI) provided funding to Strategic as a capacity building exercise for the organization.
* IRI did not have confidence in the results of the poll once they received them due to questions about the methodology, so the results of the poll were never officially released.
* Given the potentially significant nature of the results, however, IRI commissioned an audit of Strategic’s poll results. We have yet to see the results of that audit.
* Our Embassy in Nairobi was not informed by Strategic or IRI of the exit poll results by 3pm on Election Day.
It is simply false to suggest that IRI gave money, from USAID, to Strategic, a private Kenyan firm, simply as a “capacity building exercise” for either Strategic or for IRI, whichever is intended here. No, as described by the State Department before the exit poll became a “hot potato” after Kibaki was serving a second term based on the ECK’s announcement of an alleged election win on his behalf, we paid Strategic for their work “in providing an independent verification of electoral outcomes via exit poll” in the State Department’s own words. Strategic was hired based on already proven capacity having conducted the exit polls in 2002 and 2005. I have noted before that the Ambassador claimed this excuse–that the poll was only an “exercise” and never intended to be released–in a March 2008 on-line Q-and-A, but this is the first time I see this characterization stated from Washington. See Lessons from the 2007 Kenyan Election and the new FOIA Cables–Part Three, here.
As I have noted, the concern that I was aware of and discussed within IRI during the immediate post-election in Nairobi was how people would react to the release of the poll, not about its “methodology”.
The guidance notes that IRI has “commissioned an audit” but doesn’t say when it was commissioned, or whether the State Department has asked to see it. [Note also that an "audit" could not fix the "methodology" of the poll if it had been flawed. IRI released the poll the next month, in August 2008, the day before the technical consultants from UCSD were to testify about the poll before the Kriegler Commission investigating the elections.]
Finally, the statement that the Embassy “was not informed . . . of the exit poll results by 3pm on Election Day” is precious. They were informed of the results at closer to 5pm.
I’m quite curious about the “pre-decisional deliberative process material” that they decline to produce. Were they deliberating about whether to tell the truth about the USAID poll? Does this qualify for exemption? [Update: I appealed the withholding of this document to the State Department's internal FOIA appeals board; the appeal remains pending as of March 2014.]
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION SERIES