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Factcheck: Obama's 'sealed' records

Q: Are Obama's early records "sealed"?

A: No. Many records that presidential candidates don't ordinarily release do remain confidential, but they are not "sealed" by a court. The 16 claims in a widely distributed graphic are mostly false or distorted.

This is an example of mostly old baloney in a new casing. It mainly recycles years-old falsehoods and insinuations, most of which we covered long ago, in connection with an earlier viral email.

But with President Barack Obama's reelection campaign heating up, this new graphic has appeared on countless anti-Obama websites and in viral emails like the one we've reprinted here. Very little that it contains is new, and the old falsehoods have not improved with age.

Nothing 'sealed'

The idea that any Obama record is "sealed" is a falsehood, to start. The word "sealed" when applied to documents ordinarily refers to records that would normally be public, but that a judge has ruled cannot be released without the court's permission. Common examples of truly "sealed" documents include records of crimes committed as a juvenile or records of adoptions. None of the claims in this message refers to records actually "sealed" in that usual sense.

In some cases, the records this screed claims are "sealed" are actually public, and open for anyone to see. Other supposedly "sealed" records are normally private documents that Obama hasn't released — and that other presidential candidates haven't released either.

So as with earlier versions, this is little more than an attempt to raise suspicions by asking for records that aren't ordinarily made public, without any evidence that those records contain anything derogatory. We'll take the claims and questions in the order they appear.

  • Claims #1, 2 and 4, college records. Obama's college records are not "sealed" by a court order, as this graphic would have you believe. It would be illegal under federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) for Occidental, Columbia or Harvard Law School to give any former student's records to reporters or members of the public without that person's specific, written permission. Obama hasn't released them, but neither have other presidential candidates released their college records. George W. Bush's grades at Yale eventually became public, but only because somebody leaked them to the New Yorker magazine. Bush himself refused to release them, according to a 1999 profile in the Washington Post.
  • Claim #3, thesis paper. Obama did write a paper on nuclear disarmament for an honors course in American foreign policy during his senior year, but it wasn't the sort of "thesis" that some colleges require for graduation and keep on file in their libraries, like those that Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama released. During the 2008 campaign, reporters were told that Columbia had not retained a copy of Obama's 1983 paper, and that Obama didn't have a copy, either. NBC News contacted his former professor, Michael Baron, who said he looked for his copy but couldn't find it, and thought he probably tossed it out eight years earlier in a move.
    NBC quoted Baron as saying the paper likely would have disappointed Obama's critics. "The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made," Baron told NBC. "None of the papers in the class were controversial."
  • Claim #5, Selective Service registration. Obama's Selective Service registration is public. A copy has been posted publicly, and the Selective Service confirmed that Obama registered for the draft on Sept. 4, 1980, and was given registration number 61-1125539-1.
    Worth noting is that nobody in the U.S. has been drafted for military service since 1972, the year Obama turned 11. Obama, like other young men turning age 18 since then, was required to register on a standby basis, in case Congress ever resumes an active military draft. Failure to register is technically a crime, and disqualifies a man for federal student aid or from holding certain federal jobs.
  • Claim #6, medical records. During the 2008 campaign, Obama released summary medical information from his personal physician, who pronounced him to be in "excellent health" with routine test results for such things as cholesterol all within normal levels. (McCain, who is a cancer survivor and was 71 at the time, let reporters see his records for three hours to show he was cancer-free.)
    Since taking office, Obama has followed the practice of earlier presidents. He released results of his first "periodic" physical exam on Feb. 28, 2010. Results of his second "periodic" exam were released Oct. 31, 2011. His physician described him as being "in excellent health and 'fit for duty.'"
  • Claims #7 and 8, Illinois state Senate records. Obama's voting record in the Illinois state Senate is a matter of public record, and about as far from being "sealed" as one can imagine. Reporters extensively went over his votes in 2008.  Transcripts of Senate debates in which Obama took part while in office (1997 – 2004) can even be found online, at the website of the Illinois General Assembly.
    Obama's personal appointment calendar as a state senator may still be private — if it still exists — but we've seen nothing to suggest that would add much to what is already public. As president, Obama has released records of visitors to the White House (2.4 million so far). There are some exceptions. Personal information about visitors, such as Social Security numbers are not released. And there's an exemption for "particularly sensitive" information, which might include a visit by a potential Supreme Court nominee, for example. But that's still more disclosure than any previous president has made, by far.
  • Claim #9, law firm clients. It's true that Obama has not released a list of the 30 or so clients for whom he worked personally while he was a lawyer with the firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill and Gallard in Illinois. He did routinely disclose the law firm's entire client list while he was in the state Senate, however. And his campaign confirmed in 2008 several specific clients that Obama represented personally, when reporters asked about them. For example, he once represented the liberal group ACORN in a 1995 lawsuit against the state of Illinois, to make voter registration easier.
  • Claims #10 and 11, birth certificates. The claim that Obama's birth certificate is "sealed" is pure nonsense. Copies of both the so-called "short" and "long" certificates have been released, and state officials in Hawaii have said repeatedly that Obama was born there in 1961 and is a "natural born American citizen."
  • Claim #12, baptism record. If a paper record exists (and we've seen no evidence that it does), it would most likely show only what numerous, undisputed news accounts have stated: Obama was baptized in 1988 in Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama was often seen in attendance at Wright's church in the 20 years that followed. He was married there, and his two daughters were baptized there.
    He remained a member even after some of Wright's controversial sermons were given national attention in early 2008. When Obama reluctantly severed ties with Wright after weeks of controversy, it was a major news event. Obama and his family now attend St. John's Episcopal Church, near the White House, though not on a regular basis.
  • Claim #13: Michelle Obama's law license. It's simply not true that the first lady "can no longer practice law as an attorney." She could resume the practice of law any time she chooses. Both the president and his wife have voluntarily inactivated their Illinois law licenses, thereby avoiding a requirement to take continuing education classes and pay hundreds of dollars in annual fees, which is common for lawyers no longer actively practicing.
  • Claim #14, first ladies' assistants. It's true that the first lady has more than 20 on her staff, but that's roughly the same as other recent first ladies. The claim that "other first ladies had only one" might conceivably be true of Martha Washington or Dolley Madison, but it's certainly not true of Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton. Bush had at least 18 that we could count, and probably more with job titles that didn't make the link clear. The White House has said Michelle Obama's staff is the same size as Laura Bush's was.
  • Claim #15, foreign student aid. The claim that Obama got "foreign student aid" is untrue. That wild falsehood began as an absurd April Fools' Day hoax in 2009, which we quickly exposed.
  • Claim #16, Obama's passport. There's no reason to think Obama used anything but the then-current version of his U.S. passport when he traveled to Pakistan as a student in 1981. Some who questioned Obama's birthplace made baseless claims that Pakistan had banned U.S. citizens from visiting in 1981, and speculated that he must have used an Indonesian passport. But they were quite wrong. There was no such travel ban. In fact, the New York Times published a travel piece that year describing the author's own visit to Lahore, and the U.S. consul later wrote a letter to the Times saying he would "welcome an influx of Americans" and giving advice on how to make the journey.

Other claims

Besides the numbered claims, the graphic also states that Obama has been endorsed by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). It's true that the Communist Party USA supports Obama. It claims to have about 2,000 members. Obama didn't seek the CPUSA endorsement, nor has he endorsed that group.

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The graphic also attributes three quotes to Obama, all of which are commonly offered on conservative websites. All the quotes are accurate. Here's the background:

In summary, there are bits here that are true. But most is wrong or misleading, and overall the graphic falls far short of getting our seal of approval for accuracy. Call it "unsealed."

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