The Anatomy of a Smear

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Here’s how the right’s big eleventh-hour smear on Obama was carried out.

First the Murdoch-owned Times of London reported Thursday that Obama’s aunt, Zeituni Onyango, is living in a Boston public-housing complex. It’s unclear how the paper learned of the woman’s presence in the U.S.

From there, the story quickly got taken up by the right-wing echo chamber. Fox News (also Murdoch-owned, of course), Drudge, the Boston Herald, and various conservative blogs — as well as some mainstream outlets — began breathlessly hyping the story.

But the Times had been unable to tie up one key detail. It reported:

The Times could not determine their immigration status and an official at Boston City Hall said that Ms Onyango was a resident of Flaherty Way but not registered to vote on the electoral roll. However, that Ms Onyango made a contribution to the Obama campaign would indicate that she is a US citizen.

But that was easily taken care of. The Associated Press was the first to confirm, in a story posted this morning, that Onyango is here illegally after her request for asylum was rejected by an immigration judge four years ago.

But note the way in which AP seems to have obtained the information. High up in the story, it reports:

Information about the deportation case was disclosed and confirmed by two separate sources, one a federal law enforcement official. The information they made available is known to officials in the federal government, but the AP could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved in its release.

In other words, it looks like someone in the Bush administration leaked the information, with the goal of throwing a last-minute wrench into Obama’s campaign. And someone else confirmed it, with similar motives.

On the record, of course, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, is telling reporters it can’t comment on any individual person’s immigration status. It would appear to be a violation of department procedures, at the least, to leak such information.

We’ve seen this same tactic used recently by the Bush administration. Earlier this month, law enforcement sources leaked the news, also to the AP, that the FBI has begun a nationwide investigation into ACORN. Again, the obvious purpose of the leak was political — to bolster a Republican campaign to stoke fears about voter fraud, in an effort to de-legitimize an Obama win. The Justice Department still has not confirmed the existence of the investigation.