Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, November 01, 2008

  Whose October Surprise?

The Associated Press reports that two federal officials anonymously and illegally revealed confidential information about one of Barack Obama's half-sisters from Kenya, Zeituni Onyango. The sister has been living in Boston for several years. The officials told the AP late on Friday that Onyango applied for asylum and that her application was denied by an immigration judge. It's illegal to reveal information about asylum applications without the permission of the applicant.

Thus federal officials rifled through confidential files and then leaked information about them to the AP. The intent clearly was to embarrass Obama shortly before the election. It's reminiscent of Passportgate, the October 1992 scandal in which the elder Bush's administration rifled confidential files for Bill Clinton and his mother, and then leaked to the press various innuendo and smears regarding Bush's rival.

So far we don't have clear evidence that the White House ordered the breach of confidentiality. What we do have, however, are broad hints in the AP report that its sources are suspected of acting at the behest of top Republicans:

Zeituni Onyango (zay-TUHN on-YANG-oh), referred to as "Aunti Zeituni" in the Democratic presidential candidate's memoir, was instructed [in 2004] to leave the United States by a U.S. immigration judge who denied her asylum request, a person familiar with the matter told the AP late Friday. This person spoke on condition of anonymity because no one was authorized to discuss Onyango's case.


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.


A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Kelly Nantel, said the government does not comment on an individual's citizenship status or immigration case.

The reason USCIS doesn't comment is that it's illegal to disclose information about an asylum application without the written consent of the individual – except to those whose official duty it is to review that information, or at the discretion of the Attorney General (8 CFR 208.6). Thus the facts that (i) the asylum information is known to 2 federal officials, that (ii) it's been revealed to the AP by them, and that (iii) the information also is "known to officials in the federal government", are all indications of criminal violations of the federal statute on asylum confidentiality.

How far up the political chain in the Bush administration did information about Zeituni Onyango's asylum application reach? Evidently quite high to judge by this information:

Onyango's case — coming to light just days before the presidential election — led to an unusual nationwide directive within Immigrations and Customs Enforcement requiring that any deportations before Tuesday's election be approved at least at the level of the agency's regional directors, the U.S. law enforcement official told the AP.

The unusual directive suggests that the administration is sensitive to the political implications of Onyango's case coming to light so close to the election.

In other words, Bush administration officials are happy to embarrass Obama by leaking the information, but don't want to risk embarrassing themselves by moving to arrest and deport Onyango before Election Day.

The grounds why Obama should be embarrassed by the revelation are few and trivial. The AP report passes along the information that Onyango has contributed small sums totaling $260 to Obama's campaign. It's illegal for resident non-citizens who lack a green card to contribute to a political campaign, but there's no reason why Obama should have known about these small donations (which he's now returning). Neither is there evidence that Obama knew Onyango was living in Boston much less that her asylum application had been turned down.

But clearly some people in the Bush administration think that they can help John McCain's faltering campaign by leaking this confidential information. It's unclear why one offical, much less two, should have known about this obscure immigration case unless the government had gone looking for dirt and coordinated the release of what it found.

Indeed it's possible that the leaks were rolled out first through a British newspaper so as to give the Bush administration some plausible deniability. Bush & Co. have frequently leaked propaganda through Rupert Murdoch's London paper, The Times, or the equally reliable shills at The Telegraph. The expectation is that US papers will pick up the reports, or that these British reporters will make the rounds on American TV shows spreading the stories. That's what happened, for example, with this infamous forgery leaked to the Telegraph in order to influence American public opinion.

The info that Zeituni Onyango was living in Boston first appeared in the Times of London on October 30. Although The Times did not report that Onyango was in the US illegally, it did raise the question of her status while mentioning that she'd donated to Obama's campaign, thus implying that the donations would have been illegal if she weren't a citizen. In the next breath, it quoted Onyango in a way that suggested she was indeed neither a citizen nor a legal permanent resident.

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. Records at the Boston City Hall confirmed Zeituni Onyango’s birthdate as May 29, 1952.

It is not clear when Ms Onyango first came to the US. She said: “I have been coming to America ever since 1975. I always come and go.”

In the past The Times poked around in Kenya into Obama's family, however, so it's possible that without assistance from US officials it turned up information just this week on Onyango's whereabouts. On the other hand, its story does exaggerate the closeness of Barack Obama to his late father's half-sister – implying perhaps that the presidential candidate did know she resided illegally in Boston.

So it's possible that The Times played a part in rolling out a rather pathetic October Surprise engineered by Bush's political operatives. It's also possible that Bush administration officials decided to look in Onyango's files only after noticing the paper's story.

One way or the other, the flagrant lawbreaking by federal officials here strongly resembles the elder Bush's attempt in October 1992 to impugn Bill Clinton's bona fides as an American in what became known as "Passportgate". This was an attempt to whip up public outrage over a non-issue. In the dead of night, George Bush's people went rifling through confidential passport files they had no business touching. When they found nothing, they still decided to leak inflammatory and misleading information to Newsweek in an attempt to create a firestorm of speculation in the media. They then fed that speculation in the days that followed by speculating in public themselves about the history of Clinton's passport file – something they had no business discussing. There was no substance to any of it, but the hope was that the public would concentrate on the fake "issue" rather than on the real one (that is, why Republicans had been toying with confidential files).

What is forgotten mostly about this episode, I think, is that Bush administration officials went beyond opening Bill Clinton's files in their attempt to find embarrassing information. They also rifled the passport file of Clinton's mother.

For Bush operatives, in other words, family members are fair game in any attempt to smear Democratic rivals. If you're going to open a candidate's confidential files, then you might as well cast your net more widely and target his relatives too. And there perhaps is another strong indication that the attempt to smear Barack Obama was coordinated by political operatives in the younger Bush's administration.

crossposted at

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