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WASHINGTON -- The false allegation that President Barack Obama was born in another country is more than a fact-free smear.

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 their new president is a fraud, and just as ready to angrily dismiss anyone who disagrees with them 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."

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 the recent book "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."

The tale

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.

The facts

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 last 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.

The tape

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.

The birthers

A handful of people started spreading the story. Among them:

Anthony Martin, of Chicago, 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 last 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.

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."

Orly Taitz: An attorney and dentist from Orange County, she's filed lawsuits challenging Obama's citizenship and has traveled the country to marshal support for her drive to prove that Obama is not a citizen and should not 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.

In an interview, Taitz insisted that she has evidence that Obama was born in Kenya -- but that she won't release it publicly until it's authenticated.

She also said that she has records showing that Obama's mother did not go to Hawaii after the birth, but rather enrolled in the University of Washington three weeks after it. She added that she has proof that Obama is using a false Social Security number from someone who was born in 1890.

Taitz said the burden of proof is not 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."

Spreading the story

The Internet helped spread the story, through Web sites such as WorldNetDaily 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."

Ultimately, the story has taken hold with some Republicans.

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., introduced a bill in the House 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.

But there are signs that Republicans see political risk in encouraging the birthers.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael 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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