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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clueless ‘Columbo’

Q: What’s up with “Columbo” and his questions for Obama?

A: The interrogator in a chain e-mail gets his facts fouled up and makes false accusations.


Have you seen this one making the e-mail rounds? I’ve seen that you’ve disproven at least one or two items contained in this “Colombo” e-mailing. Can you debunk any of the rest on your Web site?

Thank you very much for your good work

Subject: Sorry to bother you

Remember Colombo?

Ah, sorry to bother you Mr. Obama, Sir. . …

Excuse me Mr. Obama, I mean President Obama, Sir. Um . . I know you’re busy, and important and stuff. I mean, running the country is very important and — ah — I hate to bother you, Sir. I will only take a minute. Ok, Sir?

See, I have these missing pieces that are holding me up, and I was wondering, Sir, if you could take time out of your busy schedule and help me out. You know, no big deal, just some loose ends and things.

Hey, you have a nice place here! The wife sees houses like this on TV all the time and says, boy, she wishes she had digs like this, you know? Is that painting real? Really? Wow!
I saw something like that in a museum once.
Oh, sorry Sir. I didn’t mean to get off the track.

So if you could just help me out a minute and give me some details, I will get right out of your way. I want to close this case and maybe take the wife to Coney Island or something. Ever been to Coney Island Sir? No? I didn’t think so…

Well, listen, anyway, I can’t seem to get some information I need to wrap this up. These things seem to either be “Not released” or “Not available.” I’m sure it’s just an oversight or glitch or something, so if you could you tell me where these things are I have them written down here somewhere — oh wait. I’ll just read it to you.

Could you please help me find these things, Sir?

1. Occidental College records — Not released
2. Columbia College records — Not released
3. Columbia Thesis paper — “Not available”
4. Harvard College records — Not released
5. Selective Service Registration — Not released
6. Medical records — Not released
7. Illinois State Senate schedule — Not available
8. Your Illinois State Senate records — Not available
9. Law practice client list — Not released
10. Certified Copy of original Birth certificate — Not released
11. Embossed, signed paper Certification of Live Birth — Not released
12. Record of your baptism — Not available
13. Why your wife, Michelle, can no longer practice law as an attorney? (Insurance Fraud?)_
14. Why your wife has 22 assistants, when other First Ladies had one?
15. Why were you getting “foreign student aid” as a college student?
16. Which countries “passport” did you have when you visited Pakistan in 1981?

Oh and one more thing Mr. President, I can’t seem to find any articles you published as editor of the Harvard Law Review, or as a Professor at the University of Chicago. Can you explain that to me, Sir?

Oh, but hey — listen! I know you’re busy! If this is too much for you right now — I mean — tell you what. I’ll come back tomorrow. Give you some time to get these things together, you know? I mean, I know you’re busy. I’ll just let myself out. I’ll be back tomorrow. And the day after. . …
What’s that Mr. President? Who wants to know these things?
We the People of the United States of America! You know, the ones that vote.


In the old television series “Columbo,” the rumpled Los Angeles police lieutenant played by actor Peter Falk solved crimes by asking penetrating questions based on his own keen eye both for evidence and for holes in the suspect’s story. But the fake “Columbo” in this widely forwarded message misstates facts and makes baseless insinuations.

Birth Baloney

Probing for some evidence that President Obama perhaps isn’t actually a U.S. citizen, the fake detective asks “Why were you getting ‘foreign student aid’ as a college student?” But Obama got no such aid. That question repeats a claim made in an April Fools’ Day hoax that we exposed last May. He also asks, “Which countries [sic] ‘passport’ did you have when you visited Pakistan in 1981,” suggesting that Obama must have traveled on a non-U.S. passport. But as we reported June 5, Americans routinely traveled to Pakistan using U.S. passports in 1981, and a conservative blogger’s claim that Obama necessarily used a foreign passport is false.

“Colombo’s” most blatantly false claim is that Obama has “not released” any “Embossed, signed paper Certification of Live Birth.” That’s simply not true, as we reported Aug. 21, 2008. We posted high-resolution digital photos of Obama’s “Certification of Live Birth” showing quite clearly that it is indeed embossed with the official state seal of Hawaii and also bears the signature of Hawaii state registrar Alvin T. Onaka (who uses a signature stamp for these things). As we reported, that document is legal proof of Obama’s citizenship, meeting the requirements for obtaining a U.S. passport from the State Department.

Nevertheless, “Columbo” asks for more. He wants a certified copy of an “original” birth certificate, presumably meaning whatever form was filled out at Kapi’olani hospital when Obama was born there on Aug. 4, 1961. Such a document may well exist, but it would be in the file drawers of the state of Hawaii, and the state does not release those. Since 2001, the only document the state gives to those who want proof of their birth is a “certification” like the one Obama released. But we have excellent evidence that Obama’s “certification” accurately reflects whatever the state has on file. Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the state’s Department of Health, states that she has seen the “original vital records” and that all is in order. She said in an official press release:

Fukino, July 27, 2009: I … have seen the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawai‘i State Department of Health verifying Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawai‘i and is a natural-born American citizen.

Other Insinuations

“Columbo” doesn’t stop at questioning Obama’s citizenship; he also attacks his wife. The faux “Columbo” even suggests that the first lady has been disciplined for criminal activity, asking “Why your wife, Michelle, can no longer practice law as an attorney? (Insurance Fraud?)” But the fact is that Mrs. Obama is merely “voluntarily inactive” as a lawyer in Illinois, according to the state’s attorney registration Web site. The president himself is listed as “voluntarily retired” from practicing law. The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois lists no record of any disciplinary action against either of them.

The questioner also asks “Why your wife has 22 assistants, when other First Ladies had one?” It’s true that the first lady has a large staff — 24 at the time we checked. But as we reported Aug. 5, Laura Bush had at least 18 on her staff that we could identify from personnel records, not just one as our not-so-swift detective asserts. (Laura Bush might have had even more; a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama told us her staff is the same size as Laura Bush’s, but we couldn’t confirm that.)

“Columbo” asks why Obama’s medical records were “not released.” Actually, neither Obama nor his rival John McCain made complete disclosure of medical records in the 2008 campaign. McCain allowed a select group of reporters to look over his for three hours, but allowed no photocopies to be made. Obama’s personal physician provided reporters with a detailed summary of his health status in May 2008, pronouncing him “in excellent health” with a normal electrocardiogram and normal lab results — including a cholesterol level of 173. There are surely plenty of other medical records pertaining to Obama that are not public, but we know of no evidence that these might contradict what his doctor says. And “Columbo” doesn’t provide any such evidence either.

This tactic is repeated in other questions that are meant to raise suspicions by asking for records that aren’t ordinarily made public, without any evidence that those records contain anything derogatory. “Columbo” notes that Obama’s student records from Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School are “not released,” for example. But the truth is that it would be illegal under federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) for those institutions to give those records to reporters or members of the public without Obama’s specific, written permission. Obama hasn’t given that permission, but other presidential candidates generally don’t either. George W. Bush didn’t give permission to either Andover or Yale to release his grades when he was running for president, for example, according to a 1999 profile in the Washington Post. Bush’s grades at Yale eventually became public, but only because somebody leaked them to the New Yorker magazine. We have no idea whether any embarrassing secrets might yet be lurking in Obama’s old student records. But neither does the author of this “Columbo” interrogation.

Other “Columbo” questions are just insinuations that Obama is hiding something, without any evidence of that. He wonders why Obama’s “schedule” and his “records” as an Illinois state senator are “not available.” But the truth is that all the bills Obama sponsored or cosponsored, along with full transcripts of what he said on the Senate floor during his service  between 1997 and 2004, can be found on the Web site of the Illinois Legislature. It’s true that other records probably exist — perhaps daily schedules listing his meetings with constituents or lobbyists — but what reason would there be to think they would show something bad? Or that anything unflattering would be revealed by Obama’s list of law clients, or his college thesis, or his draft registration, all of which “Columbo” wants to examine? “Columbo” doesn’t say. In detective parlance, he’s “got nuttin’ ” on Obama regarding any of those subjects.

Our conclusion: This phony “Columbo” is no Sherlock Holmes.

Brooks Jackson


Jackson, Brooks. “Was Obama Born in the USA?” FactCheck.org. 7 May 2009.

Jackson, Brooks. “More ‘Birther’ Nonsense: Obama’s 1981 Pakistan Trip.” FactCheck.org. 5 Jun 2009.

Henig, Jessica, with Joe Miller. “Born in the U.S.A.” FactCheck.org. 21 Aug 2008.

Watanabe, June. “Born Identity.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 6 June 2009.

Fukino, Chiyome. “Press Release: Statement by Health Director Chiyome Fukino, M.D.” Hawaii state Department of Health. 27 Jul 2009.

Attorney’s Registration and Public Disciplinary Record” for Michelle Obama, Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois, Web site accessed 14 Jan 2010.

Attorney’s Registration and Public Disciplinary Record” for Barack Obama, Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois, Web site accessed 14 Jan 2010.

Gore, D’Angelo. “Michelle Obama’s Staff.” FactCheck.org. 5 Aug 2009.

Altman, Lawrence K. “Many Holes in Disclosure of Nominees’ Health.” New York Times. 19 Oct 2008.

Sweet, Lynn. “Obama releases medical information: ‘excellent health.” Chicago Sun-Times. 29 May 2008.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)” U.S. Department of Education, Web site accessed 14 Jan 2010.

Romano, Lois and George Lardner Jr. “Bush: So-So Student but a Campus Mover.” Washington Post. 27 Jul 1999.

Mayer, Jane, with Alexandra Robbins The Talk of the Town, “Dept. of Aptitude” The New Yorker, 8 Nov 1999; 30.