For at least the past eight years, Gallup’s international affiliates have been regularly conducting secret public opinion research abroad on behalf of the U.S. government. Most of these studies, including Central American polls, are commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the government’s propaganda arm. Since 1983, the USIA has used a Gallup affiliate in Costa Rica, the Consultoria Interdisciplinaria en Desarrollo (CID), to do its polling in Central America.
For the Gallup organization, these intimate ties between its foreign affiliates and the U.S. government pose serious problems and ethical questions over the misleading use made of results.
Gallup leaders in Princeton, New Jersey, appear to have franchised their reputation to local market research firms in the Third World with little regard to the problems of polling in undemocratic and conflict-ridden areas. As a result, in Central America, the Reagan Administration found it remarkably easy to exploit the Gallup name for its own purposes.
For example, in March 1986, President Reagan used questionable results from CID/Gallup polls to build support for the Nicaraguan contras, claiming that “In some (Central American) countries the rate goes as high as over 90 percent of the people who support what we’re doing.” The Administration refused to substantiate the polls claims, citing the classified nature of the material which was gathered at the request of the USIA. This use of the poll is of dubious legality, since the USIA is forbidden from introducing information into domestic US political debate by the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act.
Reporters have repeatedly tried to substantiate the surveys but are given the runaround. In 1986, Barry Sussman, The Washington Post’s polling expert, encountered the Catch-22 that has frustrated journalists who have demanded that the White House validate its poll claims. When questioned, Gallup hid behind the autonomy of its affiliate, CID hid behind the proprietary and classified nature of the USIA data, and the White House, ironically, hid behind the prohibition on domestic use of USIA materials.
The conclusions of the CID/Gallup polls subsequently have been refuted by a series of independent public opinion surveys by Central American and Mexican scholars. In addition, an analysis of six USIA/CID/Gallup reports on Honduras, revealed that upper income groups were consistently overrepresented (where it was possible to determine the base of a sample). The USIA also was criticized for the wording of its questions.
By manipulating information gathering through the USIA, the Reagan administration seriously tarnished the Gallup organization’s reputation. More important, it used disinformation to deceive the American public, as well as other government leaders, in pursuit of its own foreign policy agenda.
The Nation, 5/7/88, “Mixing Polls And Propaganda,” by William Bollinger and Daniel M. Lund, pp 635-638.