Whether such a scheme is feasible, however, is
another matter, since it would require penetration of hundreds of local
computer systems across the country, presumably from a single remote
location. The known CIA successes in cyber-war have come from targeting
a specific bank account or from shutting down an adversary’s computer
system, not from altering data simultaneously in a large number of
To achieve that kind of result, cyber-war experts
say, 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. [More on “cyber-war”
Though there's still no proof of such a
cyber-attack, suspicions are growing that the U.S. presidential election
results were manipulated to some degree. Voting analyses of some
precincts in Florida and Ohio have found surprisingly high percentages
for Bush. Others have noted that the large turnout among young voters
and the obvious enthusiasm of John Kerry’s voters would have suggested a
better showing for the Democrat.
But the most perplexing fact is that exit polls
into the evening of Nov. 2 showed Kerry rolling to a clear victory
nationally and carrying most of the battleground states, including
Florida and Ohio, whose totals would have ensured Kerry’s victory in the
Significantly, polls also showed Republicans
carrying the bulk of the tight Senate races. However, when the official
results were tallied, the presidential exit polls proved wrong while the
Senate polls proved right.
Explanations from the architects of the exit-poll
sampling system also sound specious. Their report said Kerry voters were
simply more willing than Bush voters to answer the exit pollsters’
questions. But this “chattiness thesis” seems more like a post-facto
excuse than a serious argument.
Another explanation from some pundits was that the
exit polls were adjusted by late in the day to rectify pro-Kerry
exaggerations from the earlier samples. But that is not what happened.
As the New York Times reported, “The presumption of a Kerry victory
built a head of steam late in the day, when the national survey showed
the senator with a statistically significant lead, one falling outside
the survey’s margin of error.”
Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll wrote in
an online chat on Nov. 3 that “the last wave of national exit polls we
received … showed Kerry winning the popular vote by 51 percent to 48
percent – if true, surely enough to carry the Electoral College.” [NYT,
Nov. 5, 2004]
Through the late afternoon, exit polls did show
Kerry’s lead in some swing states shrinking, For instance, his lead in
Ohio slipped from four points to one point. In Florida, his lead dropped
from three points to one point. However, his edge in the popular vote
seems to have held fairly steady at about three percent.
During the day, even Bush’s aides informed the
president that he was losing the election by about three percentage
points, according to a source with access to information inside the
White House. But Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove reportedly voiced
confidence that the vote would turn around. By evening, Bush was
displaying a cool confidence that he would prevail.
Since Election Day, some computer irregularities have surfaced in
Ohio and elsewhere.
Ohio elections officials said an error with an electronic voting
system in Franklin County gave Bush 3,893 extra votes in suburban
Columbus, more than a 1,000 percent more than he actually got. Records
indicated that only 638 voters cast ballots in the precinct and that
Bush's total should have been recorded as 365.
The Associated Press reported that Franklin County is the only Ohio
county to use Danaher Controls Inc.'s ELECTronic 1242, an older-style
touch-screen voting system.
Much of the suspicion about Bush possibly manipulating the vote
totals has centered on touch-screen electronic voting machines made by
Ohio-based Diebold, which has more than 75,000 electronic voting
stations operating across the United States.
Diebold’s chief executive is Walden O’Dell, a major Bush fundraiser.
In an invitation to one Bush fundraising event at his mansion in
Columbus, O’Dell wrote that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver
its electoral votes for the president.” He later expressed regret at his
choice of language. [The Plain Dealer, Sept. 16, 2003, posted at
Diebold’s Web site.]
One Kerry insider told me that Democratic suspicions also were raised
by Republican resistance to implementing any meaningful backup system
for checking the results on Diebold and other electronic-voting
machines. For its part, Diebold denies that its systems are vulnerable
to computer hacking, calling such allegations “fantasy.” [See
Another reason for suspicion about manipulation of
the Nov. 2 vote is the Republican Party’s long history of electoral
dirty tricks, which I detail in my book,
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.
In 1968, Richard Nixon’s campaign reportedly
sabotaged Vietnam War peace talks to help ensure his victory. In 1972,
burglars working for Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into Democratic
offices at Watergate.
In 1980, George H.W. Bush and other Republicans
allegedly interfered with President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free
52 hostages held in Iran. In 1992, Bush’s administration was implicated
in an illegal search of Bill Clinton’s passport file. In 2000, George W.
Bush sent a team of thugs to disrupt recounts in Florida and eventually
got the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent a full counting of disputed
Now the question is whether Republicans have engaged in some
high-tech dirty tricks to alter the outcome of a U.S. presidential
The highly secretive practice of “cyber-warfare” has advanced far
more than many Americans understand, with U.S. intelligence agencies
pioneering methods for surreptitiously entering enemy computer systems.
Through the 1990s, the CIA and the U.S. military aggressively
expanded “cyber-war” capabilities, bringing online powerful computer
systems and recruiting some of the nation’s best hackers, intelligence
sources say. During the CIA’s recruitment rush, some hackers were hired
despite criminal records and questionable backgrounds. One got in
trouble when he was found masturbating in front of his computer screen.
By the mid-1990s, cyber-war – also known as "information warfare" –
was such a hot topic within the U.S. military that the Pentagon produced
a breezy 13-page booklet called "Information Warfare for Dummies."
The primer said traditional information warfare would target an
enemy's battlefield command-and-control structure to "decapitate" senior
officers from their fighters, thereby "causing panic and paralysis." But
the primer added that "network penetrations" -- or hacking --
"represents a new and very high-tech form of warfighting."
Indirectly, the booklet acknowledged secret U.S. capabilities in
these areas. The manual described these info-war tactics as "fairly
ground-breaking stuff for our nation's mud-sloggers. … Theft and the
intentional manipulation of data are the product of devilish minds."
The primer also gave some hints about the disruptive strategies in
the U.S. arsenal. "Network penetrations" include "insertion of malicious
code (viruses, worms, etc.), theft of information, manipulation of
information, denial of service," the primer said.
The booklet also recognized 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," the primer explained.
Despite the Pentagon's nervousness, the booklet said the cyber-war
tactics do have advantages over other military operations. "The
intrusions can be carried out remotely, transcending the boundaries of
time and space," the manual said. "They also offer the prospect of
'plausible deniability' or repudiation."
The booklet indicated that U.S. intelligence has found it relatively
easy to cover its tracks. "Due to the difficulty of tracing a network
penetration to its source, it's difficult for the adversary to prove
that you are the one responsible for corrupting their system," the
primer said. "In fact, viral infections can be so subtle and insidious
that the adversary may not even know that their systems have been
U.S. intelligence sources described one case study of a CIA high-tech
"dirty trick" that worked in the mid-1990s. After learning of a drug
lord's plans to bribe a South American government official, the spy
agency waited for the money to be transferred and then accessed the bank
records to remotely delete the bribe.
Besides stopping the bribe, the money's disappearance spread
confusion within the cartel. The recriminations that followed – with the
corrupt official and the drug lord complaining about the lost money –
led eventually to the execution of a hapless bookkeeper, according to
During the war over Kosovo in 1999, U.S. government hackers tried to
expand on these strategies, targeting Serbian computer systems and
government bank accounts. By most accounts, the cyber-war attacks on
Serbian targets achieved only limited success.
While avoiding clear confirmation of a U.S. offensive cyber-war
capability, American officials occasionally have discussed the topic in
the third person, as if the United States were not a participant in this
new arms race.
On Feb. 2, 1999, for instance, then-CIA director George Tenet said
"several countries have or are developing the capability to attack an
adversary's computer systems." He added that "developing a computer
attack capability can be quite inexpensive and easily concealable."
Left unsaid in Tenet's statement was that the U.S. government, with
the world's most powerful computers and the most sophisticated software
designs, has led the way both in offensive “cyber-war” strategies and
With questions lingering about discrepancies between the Nov. 2 exit
polls and Bush's final tallies, some Democrats are wondering whether the
intelligence community's cyber-war capabilities may have come home to
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written
a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at