The Secret Origin of the Birthers

Updated and revised version available at Bullspotting.com


“Barack Obama is a secret Muslim” may have been the original Obama conspiracy theory, but it can’t claim to be the defining one. That ignominious distinction belongs to “Obama was secretly born in Kenya,” a notion that ultimately provided the generic name for Obama conspiracy theorists: Birthers.

Virtually all of Birtherism owes its existence to the rumor that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, did not give birth to him in Hawaii. As the rumor goes, she instead traveled to Kenya for unspecified reasons, and gave birth to her son there, before returning to Honolulu and falsely claiming that she gave birth in Hawaii. This is the rumor that eventually caused the Birther conspiracy theory to tip as an epidemic, that drove the resultant demands for the release of Obama’s birth certificate, that inspired the immediate skepticism of the birth certificate following its release, and ultimately led to the neverending supply of alternative legal theories as to why Obama ought to be deemed Constitutionally ineligible for the Presidency. Perhaps one or more of these events would have transpired anyway in the absence of the Kenyan birth rumor, but as it happened, the rumor was the root cause of them all.

To listen to the most dedicated Birthers themselves, this idea long predated the 2008 election. It’s a highly self-serving claim, since they appear less like opportunistic crackpots if rumors about his birthplace had actually dogged Obama throughout his career, rather than suddenly appearing when he was in reach of the Presidency.

What little evidence they can muster for this argument is shoddy at best, and imaginary at worst. It’s common lore among Birthers that Obama’s birthplace, or at least his Presidential eligibility, was raised as an issue during a 2004 debate with Alan Keyes. But despite a surprising number of conspiracy-minded conservatives who claim to have personally watched the live broadcast of an Illinois Senate candidate debate on C-SPAN, neither the transcript nor the archived footage of the event shows any such exchange. Keyes’ own campaign manager denies such a discussion ever occurred.

Birthers might as well claim to have witnessed Obama pledge to change the National Anthem to a Coca-Cola jingle (and, in fact, some of them have said exactly that). Instead, they claim that the video’s been edited and the transcript’s been altered. Because if the evidence doesn’t match their memories, clearly the evidence has been tampered with.

There are a handful of instances prior to 2008 of someone saying in print that Obama was born in Kenya. A 2007 posting at Yahoo Answers asked “If Obama bin HUSSEIN al Barack was born in Kenya, how can he run for president in the US?” In a July 2009 editorial, the National Review suggested that the allegations of a Kenyan birth for Obama began with a commenter at a Democratic blog, The Blue State, who wrote on July 23, 2007, “Obama isn’t technically a northerner either since he was born in Kenya… I like a more international view of the world so I like the fact he was born somewhere else.” A Kenyan newspaper from 2004 casually referenced the “Kenyan-born Obama,”* while a 2006 profile of fellow Hawaiian politician Tammy Duckworth in the Honolulu Advertiser mentioned Obama in passing to say he, like Duckworth, was born outside the U.S., but the Advertiser put his birth in Indonesia, not Kenya.

image10-21The common thread between all of these is that they don’t allege any sort of cover-up. They don’t suggest that Obama’s Hawaiian birth is a lie; they just assume he was born in Kenya, as though that were the accepted truth. In other words, these aren’t the claims of conspiracy theorists; they’re the mistakes of people who don’t know how to check Wikipedia. It’s the equivalent of someone assuming George W. Bush was born in Texas (he was born in Connecticut), or John Kerry in some elite East Coast hospital (he was born on a Colorado army base).

Perhaps most infamously, the author bio that was used by his literary agent said Obama was “born in Kenya.” But that error was first discovered and publicized by Breitbart.com in 2012, and thus played no role in the development of the rumor, four years earlier.

Meanwhile, there is no record of his birthplace being an issue when he ran for office in 1996. Or in 1998. Or 2002. Or 2004. Newspaper profiles described him as being born in Hawaii. His Illinois State Senate webpage declared he was born in Hawaii. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, said nothing to suggest he was born anywhere other than Hawaii. Even federal records from his father’s immigration file starting as early as the month he was born in 1961, reference him being born in Hawaii.

There is, in fact, so much documentary evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii that a parallel theory developed among some conspiracy theorists that the person responsible for the rumors of a Kenyan birth was Obama himself, as part of some effort to make himself seem more exotic or international. But then that notion is undermined by the same lack of evidence of Obama ever actually claiming to be born outside the U.S.

The more common misconception is that rumors about Obama’s birth were first circulated during the 2008 Presidential primary by Hillary Clinton and her campaign. For instance, as Donald Trump tweeted in September 2015, three months into his Presidential campaign, “Just remember, the birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton in 2008. She was all in!”

Here, the date is right, but the source is wrong. As virtually every factchecking outlet has reported, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton, or even her official campaign, were at all involved in the development of Birther rumors. Moreover, there’s no point in the timeline of Birtherism’s creation or spread for Hillary to even be involved, unless she and her campaign were remarkably incompetent at it. Even so, pundits, politicians and the press continue to argue over how, precisely, Birtherism got its start.

As it happens, the rumor first appeared in the early hours of Saturday, March 1, 2008, on the conservative web forum, FreeRepublic.com. In a thread entitled “FR CONTEST: Pin the Middle Name on the Obama,” where posters were offering various ‘funny’ middle names for Barack Obama in lieu of “Hussein,” a poster named “FARS” posted this non-sequitur:

I was told today that Obama swore in on a Koran for his Senate seat. I do not believe he did. Can someone clarify this for me? I am under the impression only a Congressman has so far sworn in on a Koran.

Also that Obama’s mother gave birth to him overseas and then immediately flew into Hawaii and registered his birth as having taken place in Hawaii.

Again, any clarifications on this? Defintely disqualifies him for Prez. There must be some trace of an airticket. While small babies are not charged air fare they do have a ticket issued for them.

Long time ago but there may be some residual information somewhere. Good ammo (if available and true) BEST USED AFTER he becomes PREZ (if that occurs) and it’s too late for Dems – except accept the VP.

Most of the essential elements of the rumor are here, from the immediate flight to Hawaii for registration to the eligibility concerns. All that is lacking is a specific reference to Kenya, which we’ll see was remedied shortly thereafter. He acknowledges that Obama’s public biography states that he was born in Honolulu, and he alleges that the public biography is false. He actively endorses the idea of Obama’s family covering up a birth in Kenya, and as such, is proposing a conspiracy theory.

Importantly, despite being the first person, anywhere, to report this rumor, he cites no source for it. No news report, or broadcast program, or website. Only “I was told today.” The fact that it appears alongside the oft-repeated and equally oft-debunked false rumor that Obama took his oath of office on a Koran illustrates the level of FARS’ willingness to factcheck rumors before repeating them.

FARS’ rumor drew as much negative response as it did support; the very next poster wrote in reaction “Has the Conservative Philosophy and Message become so diluted and fuzzy that we must resort to trash like this[?]” No one appeared to pick up the rumor and spread it themselves. Rather, it took a blogger outside FreeRepublic to repeat it as a legitimate rumor.

Four days later, on March 4, 2008, FARS’ rumor was cited by pseudonymous blogger “Alan Peters” on his blog “Ruthless Roundup.” The post began with a link to FreedomsEnemies.com**, and followed that link with this addendum:

Add to the family history shown in this article that Obama’s mother was allegedly visiting Kenya with Obama’s father in the final months of her pregnancy and was not allowed to board a flight in her late term to return home.She allegedly had Obama in Kenya and quickly boarded a flight to Hawaii. Airlines do not accept late term pregancies but do not refuse passage to a newborn, usually issuing a 10% or free fare ticket for the trip.Once in Hawaii, his mother registered him as being born in Hawaii.

Apart from his bloodline making him an Arab American NOT an African American, (his African blood only reaches less than 7% and insufficient to qualify for Federal standards of a minimum 12.5% as a given minority) he may not even be born in the USA, and unlike McCain without being on an American military base and with BOTH parents being Americans.

Like FARS, Peters provided no source for the rumor, choosing only to frame the rumor with “allegedly,” giving it marginally more credence than FARS’s “I was told today.” Also, just as FARS had paired the birth rumor with another popular false rumor about Obama, Peters does precisely the same, with the claim that Obama is “an Arab American NOT an African American”*** (a rumor that FARS had mentioned in subsequent posts in the ‘Middle Name’ thread). Peters also adds the remaining core elements of the rumor, pinpointing Kenya as the supposed location of birth, and offering rationales for why Ann Dunham would have been in Kenya and why she would not have returned to the U.S. prior to giving birth.

Peters does not cite FARS as his source for this rumor, but there can be little doubt as to that. FARS regularly posts links to Peters’ blogs on FreeRepublic, and Peters occasionally incorporates comments from FARS into his blog posts. FARS actually tends to talk more about Peters than himself, and in my communications with FARS, he responded for the both of them. At the very minimum they are long-time friends who are in regular communication; on the other hand, it is entirely possible that they are actually the same person, and “FARS” is just a secondary internet identity for Peters.

“Alan Peters” is itself a pseudonym, and the 70-year-old Santa Ana resident who uses it is a prolific anti-Muslim blogger who maintains several websites, most notably Anti-Mullah. He describes himself as having been “For many years involved with intelligence and security matters in Iran with significant access at top levels during the rule of the Shah, until early 1979. Currently an Iran SME (subject matter expert), analyst/commentator, and multi-linguist.” A writer in Forbes Magazine cited Iranian sources who said Peters has become “a sensationalist and even fantasist in his later years.”

That description is, if anything, an understatement. Peters’ disdain for the Muslim religion is exceeded only by his outright hatred of Barack Obama. During the two years since the Kenyan birth rumor debuted on Peters’ blog, he has been one of the most steadfast purveyors of anti-Obama rhetoric and Birther conspiracy theories, ably assisted by FARS’s posts at FreeRepublic. Peters is also personally responsible for starting one of the most widespread secondary rumors about the supposed Kenyan birth, the completely false claim that Obama’s half-siblings had said he was born in Kenya. If Birtherism has a founding father, it is Alan Peters.

So how can it be certain that the Kenyan birth rumor began with FARS and Peters? FARS’s source could have been a liar or a practical joker or a nut. Perhaps it all started with a random e-mail, or perhaps there never was a source, and it was created out of whole cloth.

Amazingly, I found the answer on a website I had frequented for years. And it was not on an extremist or racist or conspiracist website, but rather on a highly respected law blog. On February 28, 2008, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh posted to The Volokh Conspiracy a short item where he stated that he was certain that John McCain was a natural-born citizen. In the comments thread to this post, one commenter posited this legal scenario:

Let’s change the hypothetical (just for grins and giggles).

Barack Obama’s father was a citizen of Kenya. What would Senator Obama’s citizenship status (and Presidential eligibility) be if:

1) He had been born in Kenya, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth and then spent the rest of his life as he has subsequently lived it?

2) He was born in a third country, and like my first hypothetical, immediately taken to the United States? Does that change the analysis?

3) Would these results change if Senator Obama had been raised in a foreign country for any length of time before his mother returned with him to the United States?

That was posted at The Volokh Conspiracy at 2:02 a.m. on February 29, 2008. Just over 24 hours later, FARS was sharing at FreeRepublic what he had “been told today” about Obama having been born overseas, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth. All the details subsequently expressed in the rumor are there, a rumor that shows no signs of having existed prior to February 29.

Thus, before it was a rumor that gave birth to a fringe movement and dozens of attempted lawsuits, Birtherism was borne out of nothing more than a legal hypothetical. No family confessions, no stories out of Africa, no investigative reporting. Just a mere thought exercise about citizenship law.

That is how Birtherism was conceived. After gestating for three months, during which time it elicited comment on perhaps a dozen or two websites in all, mostly just in passing, it was eventually born on June 9, 2008, when it finally ‘tipped’ into being a full-fledged conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory that even three years later continues to inspire lawsuits, books, and even White House press conferences.

– Loren Collins
June 22, 2011 (Updated, September 18, 2016)
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*The Kenyan newspaper is easily one of the top 3 favorite pieces of Birther evidence. It is often presented as proof that Obama’s ‘secret’ African birth is a widely-known and published fact in Kenya despite simultaneously being the subject of an elaborate fifty-year cover-up in the United States. Birthers see such wild internal inconsistency as the preferable interpretation to “The foreign newspaper made a mistake.”

**FreedomsEnemies.com was operated by Parker “Beckwith” Shannon, and was originally dedicated to commentary on Muslims. Shannon later shifted his focus to Obama (whom he was calling “the Muslim stealth candidate” as early as 2006), and rebranded his site TheObamaFile.com, which continues to be the internet’s one-stop-shop for smears and unverified rumors about Barack Obama.

***The false claim that Obama is Arab and not African-American was invented by blogger and radio host Kenneth Lamb in a February 14, 2008 post entitled “Is Obama Really African-American?” Lamb has since declined to produce any evidence whatsoever to support his claim.