GOP organization linked to dirty politics, attempted coups, 'building democracy' for US

Muriel Kane
Published: Friday June 9, 2006

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A little-known organization closely tied to the Republican Party and the Bush administration and often accused of promoting partisan policies and ideology abroad is now heavily involved in efforts to establish democratic institutions in Afghanistan and Iraq, RAW STORY has learned.

The International Republican Institute, though billing itself as an independent nonprofit unaffiliated with the Republican Party, acts essentially as a wing of the GOP. Its is chaired by party presidential frontrunner Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Representatives David Dreier (R-CA) and Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) serve on its board of directors. Many of IRI’s high-ranking staff members have at some point worked directly for the Bush administration.

What makes these connections troubling is that the organization, nominally dedicated to nurturing free institutions in emerging democracies, has also been associated with unscrupulous and undemocratic campaign practices both at home and overseas.

Crushing Kerry

In December 2004, IRI contracted with Tony Marsh and Lance Copsey of the media consulting firm Marsh, Copsey & Scott to set up a Baghdad Media Center on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Its stated purpose was to assist Iraqi political parties and candidates in the upcoming January elections.

Earlier that year, in January 2004, Marsh Copsey & Scott (now Marsh Copsey & Associates) had registered the domain name, which was used throughout the 2004 election for an anti-Kerry blog run by their senior account executive, Patrick Hynes. The site was heavily involved in promoting both the SwiftBoat Veterans and CBS Memos stories. It also encouraged readers to suggest other ways of discrediting John Kerry, and claimed to have inside sources of information on the Kerry campaign. Today, the blog is gone, but is still the main URL for the website of Marsh Copsey & Associates.

Until 2003, Tony Marsh and Lance Copsey had been associated with the firm of Russo Marsh & Rogers, which has since then become known for its sponsorship of a pro-Iraq War organization called Move America Forward. In 2004, MAF encouraged a campaign of intimidation to prevent theater owners from showing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911. In 2005, it launched a "You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" caravan to demonstrate against Cindy Sheehan. It is currently running television ads calling for the censure of former President Jimmy Carter, in retaliation against calls to censure George W. Bush.

Marsh and Copsey’s association with these actions is made more troubling by the closeness of their firm's ties to the Republican Party. They list among their clients the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees, and many state Republican organizations.

Marsh Copsey's connection with IRI goes well beyond the Baghdad Media Center. IRI's annual report for 2003 lists both Tony Marsh and Lance Copsey among its volunteers for that year. After the 2005 Iraqi election, IRI's resident political director in Iraq became Marsh Copsey's director of international ventures.

Shaping elections in Iraq and Afghanistan

Marsh Copsey is not not the only firm advising IRI on how to run Republican-style election campaigns. IRI's annual reports for 2003 and 2004 include among their lists of volunters a significant number of Republican pollsters, consultants, strategists, public opinion researchers, and campaign website designers, some of whom have come under fire for unethical practices.

For example, Rob Autry and Gene Ulm are with Public Opinion Strategies, the largest Republican polling firm. POS was responsible for the "Harry and Louise" ad in the early 90's that scuttled Clinton's health insurance proposals. In 2001, it was charged with violating Virginia's polling disclosure laws, and it has also been accused of using push polls to influence elections.

Another IRI volunteer is Whitfield Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster who often appears on television news shows presenting Republican talking points. One of his polls claimed to show that older Americans supported privatization of Social Security. Another, from 2004, indicated that 83% of Americans were satisfied with their current health insurance coverage.

These volunteers take on significance in light of the fact that in both Afghanistan and Iraq, IRI has been heavily involved in elections -- working with favored candidates and parties and conducting polls which may be intended to influence election results.

During the Afghan presidential election of October 2004, IRI's pre-election poll showed Hamid Karzai with a strong lead, and its exit poll, released immediately after the vote and well before the ballots were counted, also gave him over 50% of the vote. The British Helsinki Human Rights Group subsequently suggested that these polls might have helped head off scrutiny of an election that had initially been met with well-founded suspicions of fraud.

IRI's polls also serve to influence public opinion in the United States. A year ago, MediaMatters pointed out that the Washington Post had cited an IRI poll showing that "60 percent of Iraqis believed the country is headed in the right direction" without indicating the partisan nature of its source. In September 2004, President Bush had cited a similar IRI poll at a press conference, saying, "I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America. It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future."

Outsourcing regime change

IRI was founded in 1983 as the result of a Reagan administration initative to fight Communism by providing government funding to private groups -- most notably the National Endowment for Democracy -- that would promote U.S. policies in ways the government could not undertake directly. In 1991, one of the creators of the NED would be quoted as saying, "a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA." This initiative led to the creation of two organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, associated with the two political parties.

IRI and NDI originally focused their activities on Central America and the Caribbean, but after the fall of the Soviet Union they shifted their attention to the former Communist republics of Eastern Europe. In Serbia, for example, the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 was carefully orchestrated, in an effort that the Washington Post has called "a curious mixture of secrecy and openness." In this effort, NDI offered its polling and organizing expertise to help develop a unified political opposition, while IRI provided a student group, Otpor, with instruction in non-violent resistence and helped it to plaster the country with anti-Milosevic stickers and graffiti.

However, operations of this sort have not always been as seemingly well-intentioned -- especially since the start of the Bush administration -- and IRI has recently come under heavy criticism for its activities in Venezuela, Haiti, and Cambodia. In all three countries, IRI has taken a partisan role, channeling support and funding to extreme right-wing and pro-Bush parties and skewing its reporting in their favor. This is in sharp contrast with the National Democratic Institute, which reportedly works with all factions and focuses on sponsoring debates and handing out voting guides.

In April 2002, it was revealed that in the months preceding the abortive coup against Hugo Chavez, the U.S. government had funneled millions of dollars through IRI and related organizations to opposition groups in Venezuela. IRI staff members had held discussions with one of the coup leaders a few months before the coup attempt, and on the day of the coup the president of IRI issued a press release hailing the removal of Chavez from power.

IRI has also been accused of being a major factor in the violent coup which removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in Haiti in February 2004, leaving that country in a state of chaos. According to both the New York Times and Salon, IRI had spent years undermining the reconciliation process after disputed elections, counseling and funding opposition groups, and training coup leaders.

The secretive aspect to some of IRI's activities, combined with its repeated involvement in subverting left-leaning politicians and parties, creates the appearance that it may be acting as one more tool in the Bush administration's arsenal for regime change by any means available. The recent increase in IRI's federal funding -- which almost tripled, from $26 million to $75 million, between 2003 and 2005 -- adds grounds to this suspicion.

IRI's ties to the current administration are strong, to say the least. Its current president left the organization from 2001 to 2004 to serve as Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. A former IRI regional director served under him as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the same bureau. IRI's general counsel became the deputy director of economic policy for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003. One former IRI staff member was Director of Governance for the CPA, while another, who was Senior Advisor for Governance, has now returned to IRI as executive vice president.

Karl Rove's dirty tricks alma mater

Tony Marsh and Lance Copsey are not the only names associated with both IRI and Karl Rove-style campaign dirty tricks. Several of IRI's volunteers have lectured or taught seminars at Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute, the venerable training-ground for dubious Republican campaign practices, which Salon has described as teaching "that with sufficient organization, the act of voting becomes less a basic right than a tactical maneuver." Karl Rove himself is an alumnus of the Leadership Institute, as is Jeff Gannon. So is Patrick Hynes, the Marsh Copsey employee who ran

Among the IRI volunteers with a Leadership Institute connection is Ron Nehring, the vice-chairman of the California Republican Party, who says in his online biography that he "has volunteered to teach campaign strategy and tactics to others at campaign seminars throughout the United States and Canada, and even in such troubled areas as the Middle East and Haiti, through the International Republican Institute and the Leadership Institute."

Nehring, a protege of Grover Norquist who was recently the subject of an article at RAW STORY, is also head of The Project for California's Future, which regularly partners with the Leadership Institute to provide campaign trainings. The board of advisors of that group includes Kerri Houston, another IRI volunteer. Houston is also on the board of directors of GOPUSA, the website which credentialed Jeff Gannon as a White House reporter.

At least two other IRI volunteers -- fundraiser Paul Pelletier and Newt Gingrich's former chief legislative assistant, Nancy Bocskor -- have taught at the Leadership Institute as well.

These connections with the Gingrich-Norquist wing of the Republican Party point up IRI's role in promoting a radical right-wing ideology. Though IRI is largely supported by federal funding, it receives additional contributions from right-wing foundations, large corporations (including major oil firms, telecommunication companies, and defense contractors), and Republican lobbyists. Representatives of these same corporations and foundations serve on its board of directors, and it appears that their extreme free-market ideas may be more influential on the organization than the traditional American love for open institutions that it nominally espouses.

On to Tehran?

At present, the International Republican Institute appears to be slowly gearing up to participate in the Bush administration's current initiative to promote regime change in Iran by supporting Iranian pro-democracy activists. However, some of IRI's alumni and associates have already been on the move.

In 2004, a former IRI staff member, J. Scott Carpenter, became head of the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, with the responsibility "to reach out to Iranian democrats inside the country to see who would be willing to accept outside support in their efforts to reform and change the Islamic republic." Just this March, Carpenter participated in the creation of an unprecedented Office of Iranian Affairs, whose purpose is "to facilitate a change in Iranian policies and actions."

More surprisingly, three members of the Serbian student group Otpor showed up in Dubai last summer, running training sessions in which they tutored Iranian activists in the same kinds of tricks that IRI had taught them five years earlier during the push to overthrow Milosevic. In a recent article, Asia Times described these workshops as "highly secretive" and said that "stress was laid on the importance of ridiculing the political elite as an effective tool of demythologizing them in the eyes of the people."

Asia Times further quotes an Iranian analyst as saying, "As I gather, the idea was to fund and train activists to be agents provocateurs along the lines of the Otpor movement in Serbia. Their job was to utilize various techniques, such as anti-government graffiti etc, to embolden the student movement and provoke a general government crackdown, which could then be used as a pretext to 'spark' a mass uprising in Iran that appeared to be spontaneous and indigenous."

Asia Times does not identify the "Americans who appeared to supervise the course and whose affiliation remained unclear throughout." However, it seems certain that whether or not they were formally associated with IRI, the attitudes and methods they were passing along to the Iranian dissidents derive directly from those of, the Leadership Institute, and the International Republican Institute.

When reached for comment...

Calls made by RAW STORY to IRI for comment went unreturned. However, during one such call, an IRI spokesperson left the phone line open as she explained to a third party why she intended to ignore the call. In doing so, she not only gave insight into why the group avoids some media, but also gave a few new details about IRI programs, and linking them to another media activist group. (More...)