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SUMMARY: American missionaries who lived in Kenya have spun a conspiratorial tale about Barack Obama that's bouncing around the Internet, but the allegations don't hold up to scrutiny. Sound familiar?
The letter is personal, a friend or relative confiding to another about something important. It is written by an American missionary, offering insight from Africa.
"Thanks for sending out an alert about Obama," Celeste Davis writes in an e-mail. "We are living and working in Kenya for almost twelve years now and know his family (tribe) well. They are the ones who were behind the recent Presidential election chaos here."
Loren Davis, Celeste's husband, says the letter was never meant to be forwarded to thousands, plastered on blogs and put up as the God's truth about Sen. Barack Obama.
"It was written at a time of a lot of emotional things," he said.
But that's exactly what did happen. And before you read any more excerpts of the letter, understand that its contents are a gross distortion of a few kernels of truth, another example of the fierce, mostly anonymous chain e-mail attacks prevalent in this presidential campaign. This one differs in that it's signed by a real person, a Christian missionary. That fact alone brings it more credence in the blogosphere.
The letter reads: "Obama under 'friends of Obama' gave almost a million dollars to the (Kenya) opposition campaign who just happened to be his cousin, Raila Odinga, who is a socialist trained in East Germany. ...
"What we would like you to know is what the American press has been keeping a dirty little secret. Obama IS a muslim and he IS a racist and this is a fulfillment of the 911 threat that was just the beginning. Jihad is the only true muslim way. We have been working with them for 20 years this July! He is not an American as we know it.
"Please encourage your friends and associates not to be taken in by those that are promoting him. ... By the way. His true name is Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama. Won't that sound sweet to our enemies as they swear him in on the Koran! God Bless you." ( Read the entire e-mail here. )
PolitiFact has previously ruled that Obama is not a Muslim, and was not raised Muslim. He is a committed Christian. We've also ruled that Obama did not attend a madrassa that taught Wahabism, an austere form of Islam. And that Obama was not sworn into office on a Koran. He took the oath of the U.S. Senate in 2005 with a family Bible.
So we're focused on three new claims:
•"Obama under 'friends of Obama' gave almost a million dollars to the (Kenya) opposition campaign."
Loren Davis provided PolitiFact with a document that he says shows Obama gave $1-million to the Kenyan opposition campaign led by Odinga. A header at the top of the page says it's a "consolidated statement of campaign financial activities." Under the header is a list of "incoming resources" with entries listed in columns of "from" and "amount."
Handwritten notes amplify the point being made. A name on the list is underlined and the words "Barak Obama" are written in the margin, suggesting that donation is from the Illinois senator, even though his name is misspelled. The amount across from this name also is underlined and next to it someone has written "$1 million," implying Obama contributed $1-million.
The Obama campaign strongly disputes this allegation and three Kenya experts who reviewed the document at our request called it fraudulent. The Obama campaign sent PolitiFact the same document and one other purporting to show Obama's campaign contributions to Kenya. The first they heard of it was when these documents arrived by fax.
On the legible version, you can see the underlined entry says, "Friends of Senator BO."
Only, there is no political action committee named Friends of Senator BO or Friends of Barack Obama. So says Obama's campaign. And a search of the Federal Election Commission Web site and Opensecrets.org, the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics, pulls up neither. In fact, there's no PAC name even close.
Not to mention, the Obama campaign says the senator never gave money to Kenyan Prime Minister Odinga.
And Salim Lone, spokesman for Odinga, confirms that.
"That is absolutely ridiculous," Lone said in an interview with PolitiFact from Kenya. "Mr. Obama did not donate a single cent to Mr. Odinga's campaign."
Just to be certain, we did an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports of disbursements from Obama's principal presidential campaign committee, Obama for America, during the 2008 election cycle. We searched for "Kenya," "Odinga" and "ODM," the latter being Odinga's political party, and came up with no matches.
( UPDATE: In June 2008, a reader correctly pointed out that there was a "Friends of Barack Obama" PAC on the Illinois state level from 1995-2005. We analyzed reports of disbursements from this PAC, searching for "Kenya," "Odinga" and "ODM." We came up with no matches.)
• "Who just happened to be his cousin, Raila Odinga, who is a socialist trained in East Germany."
This part of the claim stems from an interview Odinga did with BBC News in January 2008. ( Listen to it here. ) In a discussion about the political situation in Kenya amid fallout from a disputed election — where Odinga's party rejected official results and vowed to install Odinga as the "people's president" — the following exchange occurs:
Odinga: "Barack Obama's father is my maternal uncle."
BBC: "You're related to him?"
Odinga: "Yes, I am."
No, you're not, says the Obama campaign.
We spoke to three Kenya experts who dismiss this part of the claim as well, suggesting Odinga made the connection to give himself more legitimacy during the political crisis. Odinga was one of two men who claimed to have won Kenya's presidential election in December 2007 and the disputed results led to bloodshed.
Odinga ultimately agreed to share power with Mwai Kibaki. Odinga became prime minister and Kibaki president.
"It's stretched to the point of ridiculousness," said Joel D. Barkan, political science professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "To my knowledge, they are not first cousins in the normal sense. To my knowledge, there's absolutely no relationship at all."
Alex Awiti, a Kenyan postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, says you have to consider the context of when Odinga was speaking, in the middle of a political crisis.
"Raila Odinga was groping all over the place, trying to find some political legitimacy to get on a high pedestal to claim leadership and using Obama was basically going to add some political points," said Awiti, who lived in Kenya until three years ago. "This is very opportunistic and it should be totally disregarded."
Lone, Odinga's spokesman, said cousins in the African sense is very different from cousins in the American sense, so they might be distant relatives.
As far as being trained in East Germany, Odinga's own Web site says he attended Herder Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and earned a master's degree from the Otto von Guericke Technical Institute in Magdeburg, Germany. Both cities were part of the former East Germany.
But again, our Kenya experts say that doesn't make him a socialist.
"It should have said he was a socialist trained in East Germany," Barkan said. "He's populist politics, but he's no socialist."
• "By the way. His true name is Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama."
Let's be clear: The senator from Illinois who is running for president of the United States is named Barack Hussein Obama Jr. His campaign has insisted that is his full name (no Muhammad). We've checked this before and found it to be blatantly wrong. But since the rumor persists, we decided to dig deeper.
We have now searched every public record we can access and find nothing to support the notion that Obama has a second middle name of "Muhammed" or "Mohammed." Only in the ether of chain e-mails does this allegation fly.
We have a copy of Obama's marriage certificate from the Cook County Bureau of Vital Statistics in Illinois. Barack H. Obama married Michelle L. Robinson on Oct. 3, 1992, in Chicago. (And, yes, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. officiated.)
We looked at Obama's driver's license record in the state of Illinois, and the name reads: Barack H Obama. (Senator, just a reminder that your license is up for renewal this year).
We searched property records for Obama and found listings under the names Barack Hussein Obama and Barack H Obama.
We also found Obama's registration and disciplinary record with the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. ( You can see it here. ) Barack Hussein Obama was admitted as a lawyer by the Illinois Supreme Court on Dec. 17, 1991. (By the way, Obama has no public record of discipline.)
We tried to obtain a copy of Obama's birth certificate, but his campaign would not release it and the state of Hawaii does not make such records public. (UPDATE: On June 12, 2008, the Obama campaign e-mailed to PolitiFact a copy of the senator's birth certificate. It confirms our findings. See it for yourself here.)
Loren Davis, whose wife wrote the e-mail, says he can't substantiate the claim.
"That was what we heard there (in Kenya)," Davis said.
• • •
You'll find versions of this chain e-mail and its absurd allegations all over the Internet. But what makes it different, more believable, more attractive for forwarding far and wide, is that it's signed by a real person, an American missionary who has spent time in Africa.
Loren Davis spoke at length to PolitiFact about his wife's e-mail. He says they're back in the United States but doesn't want to say where. He says he wants to stay out of politics, but he has a deep concern about Obama.
"Barack Obama seems like he has a good personality. I'm not against him personally," Davis said. "But I think there would be a very legitimate threat if a Muslim becomes president of the United States. ...The squeeze is going to come down."
When we reminded Davis that Obama has been an active Christian his whole adult life, Davis said even if Obama isn't Muslim, he has plenty of Muslim support and the risk is the same.
"It is a massive roll of the dice based on his connections," Davis said.
We called Davis after investigating the claims and explained we found nothing to substantiate them and in fact, more than enough evidence to disprove them.
He was unmoved.
"I'm not going to argue with you ... I'm just saying that there's a pattern."
Yes, there is. A pattern of Pants on Fire wrong.
BBC News, Odinga says Obama is his cousin, Jan. 8, 2008
Infoplease.com, Leipzig history
New York Times, Disputed Vote Plunges Kenya Into Bloodshed, by Jeffrey Gettleman, Dec. 31, 2007
New York Times Kenyan Opposition Leader Says Foreign Pressure Must Continue by Jeffrey Gettleman, March 4, 2008.
Associated Press, Kenya's new prime minister Raila Odinga takes oath of office, April 17, 2008
Reuters, FACTBOX: Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, Feb. 28, 2008
Raila07.com, Raila Odinga Web site
Federal Election Commission, Search for committees with "Obama" or "Senator BO" in the name
Opensecrets.org, Political action committees
Illinois state board of elections, Committee search, search active committees to find Friends of Barack Obama
PolitiFact analysis of disbursement records for state PAC, Friends of Barack Obama, June 16, 2008
PolitiFact analysis of FEC presidential campaign disbursement records for 2008 cycle, April 29, 2008
PolitiFact.com, "Not a Muslim; not Mohammed," by Angie Drobnic Holan, Jan. 11, 2008
Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois, Barack Hussein Obama, as of April 25, 2008
Illinois Secretary of State's office, Driver's license record for Barack H Obama, April 29, 2008
Bureau of Vital Statistics, Cook County Illinois, Marriage certificate for Barack H. Obama and Michelle L. Robinson, April 29, 2008
Hawaii Department of Health, Birth certificate for Barack Obama
Hawaii Department of Health, Vital Statistics & Records, Office of Health Status Monitoring, April 28, 2008
Interview with Loren Davis, American missionary, April 23, 2008 and May 1, 2008
Interview with Tommy Vietor, Obama campaign spokesman, April 28-29, 2008
Interview with Jacqueline Klopp, assistant professor of international and public affairs, Columbia University, April 28, 2008
Interview with Joel D. Barkan, political science professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., April 29, 2008
Interview with Salim Lone, spokesman for Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, May 1, 2008
Interview with Alex Awiti, postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, May 1, 2008