WASHINGTON — The false allegation that President Barack Obama was born in another country is more than a fact-free hit job.
Marked by accusations and backstabbing, it's the story of how a small but intense movement called "birthers" rose from a handful of people prone to seeing conspiracies, aided by the Internet, magnified without evidence by eager radio and cable TV hosts, and eventually ratified by a small group of Republican politicians working to keep the story alive on the floors of Congress and the campaign trails of the Midwest.
It's a powerful story about what experts call political paranoia over a new face in a time of anxiety and rapid change — the sort of viral message that can take hold among a sliver of the populace that's ready to believe that the new president is a fraud, and just as ready to angrily dismiss anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy.
"He is NOT an American citizen," yelled a woman at a town hall meeting in Delaware, angrily confronting a congressman. "I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back."
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When Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., responded that Obama is a citizen, she and others in the room jeered him.
"It's a fascinating phenomenon," said Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and author of a recent book entitled, "Political Paranoia."
"They are not searching for the truth. They are searching for anything that confirms their fixed idea, their malevolent idea . . . It doesn't soothe people to tell them it's not legitimate. That makes them angry."
Birthers charge that Obama hasn't proved that he was born a U.S. citizen, and therefore isn't eligible to be president under the constitutional requirement that the president be 35 years old, be a resident of the country for at least 14 years, and be a natural-born citizen.
They also say that a birth certificate posted on the Internet by Obama during his campaign isn't the original, and a forgery anyway.
First, the 2007 document isn't a forgery. Independent experts from such groups as FactCheck.org at the University of Pennsylvania have examined it and said it's real.
Second, it's true that the 2007 document issued by the state of Hawaii, called a Certification of Live Birth, isn't a copy of the original 1961 document. The longer, original form would show more details, including the name of the doctor, according to copies of other 1961 birth certificates.
White House aides say only that Obama has produced his birth certificate. That's true. It is A birth certificate, issued by the state Health Department and acceptable to prove citizenship to the federal government for purposes of obtaining a passport.
It's also true that it isn't THE original birth certificate.
Regardless, Hawaii state officials said again this week that they've examined the original and affirmed that it shows that Obama was born there.
Also, the two Honolulu newspapers report that they carried brief announcements of the birth of a boy to the Obamas in 1961. Said the Aug. 13 birth announcement in the Honolulu Advertiser: "Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama, 6085 Kalanianaole Hwy, son, Aug. 4."
The Hawaii state Health Department says it supplied the lists of births for those announcements. Announcements supplied by families were longer, more personal and normally included the child's name.
Many birthers, such as Pennsylvania attorney Phil Berg, allege that Obama was born in Kenya and that his Kenyan grandmother is on tape saying that she was present at his birth there.
Yet the tape circulated on the Internet doesn't actually say that — and the full tape actually contradicts it.
On the tape, the woman thought to be Sarah Obama is prodded by a Berg ally who's a self-described bishop from the U.S. to affirm that Obama was born in Kenya.
"Was she present when he was born in Kenya?" Bishop Ron McRae asks in the taped phone call.
"She says yes she was. She was present when Obama was born," says the voice of translator.
The tape ends abruptly.
Despite Berg's assertions, the response didn't actually confirm a birth in Kenya. Moreover, a longer version of the tape shows the elder Obama decidedly denying a Kenyan birth immediately after the first tape was cut off.
"I would like to go by the place, the hospital where he was born. Can you tell me where he was born? Was he born in Mombasa?" McRae is heard asking.
"Obama was not born in Mombasa. He was born in America," the translator says after talking to the woman.
"I thought he was born in Kenya," McRae asks again.
"He was born in America, not in Mombasa," says the response. Another response later says, "Obama in Hawaii. Hawaii. She says he was born in Hawaii."
Still, the charge has spread despite no evidence that Obama was born in Kenya and compelling evidence that he was born in Hawaii.
A handful of people started spreading the story. Among them:
Martin, a Chicagoan, is a legal gadfly who was among the first to file a lawsuit demanding to see Obama's birth certificate in Hawaii, which was denied last year.
"I would like to claim the role of ringmaster in this birth certificate circus," Martin said this week on his Web site. "From the first day I began writing about Barack Obama's secret life five years ago, Obama has obstructed access to the truth about himself. Obama's sycophants in the media and government have tried to protect him from the truth and the facts of his life."
A frequent and always unsuccessful candidate for office — he's running this time for U.S. Senate in Illinois — Martin was the first to charge that Obama was a Muslim.
In an e-mail, he distanced himself from other birthers who claim that Obama was born in Kenya. "I have continually expressed doubt about the Kenya theory," he wrote. "I openly state that there is a not a shred of credible evidence Obama was born in Kenya."
Martin has a history of inflammatory and often anti-Semitic comments. He once called a Chicago judge a "crooked, slimy Jew who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race." When he was preparing to run for office in Connecticut, one of his campaign documents said that a purpose of the campaign was to "exterminate Jew power." A court filing in 1983 stated that, "I am able to understand how the Holocaust took place, and with every passing day feel less and less sorry that it did."
Asked about the anti-Semitic comments, Martin said they "took place over a quarter of a century in a very vicious lawsuit in which names were called on all sides."
Taitz, an attorney and dentist from Orange County, Calif., has filed lawsuits challenging Obama's citizenship and has traveled the country to marshal support for her drive to prove that Obama isn't a citizen and shouldn't be president. Her Web site asks people to contribute money via a PayPal account.
She filed one lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court; it was dismissed. She filed another in Georgia on behalf of an Army Reserve officer who wanted to take back his volunteer offer to serve in Afghanistan because Obama was a foreigner and not really his commander in chief. The Army excused the officer from going to Afghanistan, saying any volunteer could back out.
Taitz didn't respond to requests for comment until after this story had appeared on the Internet. In a subsequent interview, Taitz said she has evidence that Obama was born in Kenya, that records show that Obama's mother didn't go to Hawaii after the birth, but rather enrolled in the University of Washington three weeks after the birth, and that she has proof Obama is using a false Social Security number from someone who was born in 1890.
But Taitz didn't provide the evidence, saying the burden of proof isn't on her, but on Obama.
"I don’t need to prove anything,” she said. "He’s the one that needs to provide proper evidence that he is qualified to be president.”
Taitz's enthusiasm for the topic is unbounded. She once drove to a legal conference in Washington state to press Chief Justice John G. Roberts to consider Obama's citizenship; he declined to comment on any possible case as security officers prepared to escort her from the conference.
She's also met with Republican state lawmakers in Missouri. "She had a lot of documents there and has done a lot of traveling and spent a lot of money on the legitimacy of his citizenship," said Missouri state Rep. Ed Emery, a Republican.
Taitz boasts on her personal blog each time a prominent Republican, such as a member of Congress or Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, signs up as a "friend" on her Facebook account, although many public figures often sign off on such links routinely.
"I am in total disbelief and greatly honored," she said in one post on her blog. "It means that the leadership of the Republican Party understands the importance of the issues and legal cases I brought forward."
Not so fast, said RNC spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.
"Chairman Steele has thousands of Facebook friends. Obviously it doesn't mean he endorses the agendas of all of them," she said. "Chairman Steele believes this is an unnecessary distraction and that the president is a U.S. citizen. . . .Chairman Steele has other issues to take up with the president having to do with policy, not a birth certificate."
Berg, an attorney from Pennsylvania, has been described by the Allentown Morning Call as a "legal gadfly" and also has filed lawsuits unsuccessfully challenging Obama's citizenship and presidency.
"This has been a real sham," Berg said at one point to radio talk show host Michael Savage.
Berg's seen other conspiracies as well. In 2004, he filed a lawsuit against then-President George W. Bush _not to mention every male Bush from two generations — charging that the government secretly allowed the 2001 terrorist attacks to happen.
In detail, Berg's suit alleged that the World Trade Center towers were destroyed from within and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency maintained "a black-op shadow government designed to replace the elected government of the United States." (FEMA at the time was run by Michael Brown, later infamous for his stewardship of the agency following Hurricane Katrina.)
Once allies with Orly Taitz — the two appeared together in December at the National Press Club — Berg has had a falling out with the Californian, who's won more media attention.
"Orly Taitz, esquire, must be disbarred," Berg said in June as he filed a lawsuit against her.
"Orly has been grabbing the headlines but doing disservice to the millions who want Obama to prove he is constitutionally eligible/qualified to be president. . . . Orly has only one case pending . . . I have three lawsuits pending."
Berg did not respond to requests for comment.
A writer at the Web site WorldNetDaily.com, Corsi has said repeatedly at such venues as the G. Gordon Liddy radio show that the birth certificate Obama's campaign posted on its Web site was fake. "It's a fake document," he said on Fox News. "I'm convinced it's a forgery," he said on Blogtalkradio.com.
Corsi was a co-author of "Unfit for Command," a book slamming 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and the author of "Obama Nation," a book slamming Obama last year. His opening lines of the book credit the influence of Andy Martin.
Democrats weren't his only targets. He's said that Bush was secretly trying to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a new North American Union that would govern Canada, Mexico and the United States. "His secret agenda is to dissolve the United States of America into the North American Union," he wrote at one point.
Many mainstream conservatives recoiled at the North American Union conspiracy theory. Talk show host Michael Medved, for example, called it "paralyzing, puerile paranoia."
Corsi couldn't be reached to comment.
SPREADING THE STORY
The Internet helped spread the story, through Web sites such as WorldNetDaily.com and dozens of other conservative sites, often repeating charges without evidence or attribution beyond other like-minded Web sites.
"This is abetted by changes in the structure of communications," said Michael Barkun, an expert in conspiracy theories and a political science professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
"What once would have been fringe ideas are spread very quickly and much more widely than would have been the case even 10 years ago. . . . Ideas that originate in quite small subcultures can very quickly get mainstreamed."
Once the story spread on the Internet, several of the birthers have found a stage on talk radio and cable TV. Lou Dobbs of CNN, for example, has said he thinks the allegation is false, yet he continues airing them.
Radio talker Rush Limbaugh has joked about it, saying, "Barack Obama has one thing in common with God. You know what it is? God doesn't have a birth certificate either."
Sean Hannity prominently featured Andy Martin on his Fox News program during the 2008 presidential campaign. Hannity also heavily promoted Corsi when Corsi's anti-Obama book came out.
Talk show host Liddy has repeatedly featured stories charging that the president was born in Kenya.
Ultimately, the story's taken hold with some Republicans.
Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would require a presidential candidate to produce a birth certificate "together with such other documentation as may be necessary" to prove natural-born citizenship. It would take effect in 2012, in time to force Obama to produce more documentation.
Posey has nine co-sponsors so far, all Republicans.
In the Senate, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told the Tulsa World he didn't think it was a priority, but that he understood the birthers' quest.
"I don't discourage them from going ahead and pursuing that," he said.
There are signs that Republicans see political risk in encouraging the birthers.
Steele distanced himself from them on Thursday. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House, said he has other priorities, and that he has no reason to believe the allegation.
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