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An Attack That Came Out of the Ether

Audio
The Post's Matt Mosk speaks with Dr. Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Studies about her research into e-mails that spread rumors that Barack Obama is a radical Muslim.Audio by Matt Mosk/The Washington Post, Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

Around the same time Ted Sampley, a North Carolina man who runs his own Web site, published a similar piece. In an interview, he denied authorship of the e-mail, but said he did not doubt that his article had provided source material. "That's the miracle of it," Sampley said. "Once it takes off, and people start posting it on Web sites, you really have no idea how far it goes or who reads it. You get a ripple effect. It's like a little pebble and then it gets bigger and bigger."

Poring over these early articles on the topic, Allen noticed what she thought was an important pattern. In each instance, someone had posted the articles on the Free Republic Web site, prompting a discussion involving the same handful of people, with several expressing a desire to spread the word about Obama's supposed faith.

Keeper of the Obama File

Of the file folders that are spread in neat rows across Allen's desk, only one is bulging. It holds printouts of the reams of conversations about Obama's religion appearing on Free Republic. Since its start in 1996 by Jim Robinson of Fresno, Calif., the site has grown into a home for discussion of all types -- though it is particularly noted for spirited political discussions dominated by conservatives and libertarians. Freepers, as they're called, converse with a varying degree of transparency. Most remain anonymous.

Allen counted 23 freepers among those engaging in regular discussions about Obama's religion, and isolated a handful whom she began to suspect as having a role in the e-mail. Sifting through hundreds of postings, she began to piece together their identities. There was "Beckwith," whom she pegged as a veteran from Boston, old enough to vote for John F. Kennedy, in uniform by 1964, and host of a Web site that devotes considerable space to an "Obama file" that says the senator is "by birth, blood and training, a Muslim."

Allen found Beckwith discussing the matter in a Jan. 13 clip from a Web-based conservative radio show based in San Diego. In his thick Boston brogue, Beckwith told hosts Jeff Lynch and Mike Howard that Obama's "relationship to Islam is the big question. When one investigates the background of Obama's conversion, I can find no record of his baptism."

"Wow! Interesting!" Lynch gasped.

"This guy could easily be the Muslim Manchurian candidate," Howard said.

As Allen scanned his postings on Free Republic, she noticed that Beckwith repeated several phrases that also surface in the e-mail. Beckwith called Obama "an apostate Muslim, educated in madrassas." And when Beckwith later repudiated the "madrassa" claim -- after it was debunked by the mainstream media -- the term disappeared from subsequent versions of the chain e-mail. The Post located Beckwith in a Boston suburb, and he agreed to be interviewed under the condition that he not be identified because "I get a lot of really nutty stuff and some of it's threatening." The 69-year-old said he is retired as a software engineer and lives alone, but for brief stints babysitting for his grandchildren. He said he started a Web site in 2005 "because I don't play golf." His initial goal was to take swats at the liberal left. "Then this new guy comes along called Obama," he said.

Beckwith said he built a Web site that features hundreds of pages of material intended to undermine Obama. "If 20 percent of what's on my Web site is true, this guy is a clear and present danger," Beckwith said. (He later added, "I try very hard to be accurate.") But while Beckwith speaks with pride about his research -- much of which he credits to an unnamed "colleague" in Europe -- and to his extensive Obama files, he rejects outright the suggestion that he authored the chain e-mail. "I've never been involved with any e-mailings. Period," he said.

Another Free Republic participant who attracted Allen's interest went by the handle "Eva." She was one of the first to write on the site about Obama's religion -- in November 2006 she began repeating the phrase "Once a Muslim, always a Muslim," when discussing Obama.

With the help of Allen's biographical sketch, The Post located Eva in rural Washington state. She is Donna Shaw, 60, a teacher who said Obama's ability to captivate audiences made her deeply uneasy because his "tone and cadence" reminded her of the child revivalist con-man preacher Marjoe Gortner.

Shaw says she has done extensive online research about Obama but believes many of the initial sites that provided "proof" of his Muslim background have been removed from the Internet: "Everything about his Muslim background was readily available on the Web in 2004. But they were all cleared from the Internet before he ran for Senate." Shaw says she's always had a hankering for politics. Probably, she muses, that's because her father served for a spell as a New Jersey state assemblyman. He was driven out, she notes without a hint of irony, when he became the victim of a 1950s smear campaign that wrongly accused him of being a communist.


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