Barack Obama, Secret Agent Man

Yesterday, beloved public figure Steve Sailer posted some circumstantial evidence suggesting that Barack Obama’s parents might have been connected to the Central Intelligence Agency, and that their connections might have been of value to Mr O himself at various points in his career.  The evidence is scattered over three continents and several decades, and as such can hardly be called conclusive.  Sailer mentions that Stanley Ann Dunham’s employment at the US embassy in Jakarta in the late 1960s, when that embassy was regarded throughout the region as the hub for the agency’s activities in Southeast Asia; and that Barack Obama, Senior was a close associate of Tom Mboya, a strongly pro-American political leader in Kenya in the same period.  As for Mr O, after graduating from Columbia in the 80s he took a job at a company called Business International, a newsletter firm which the New York Times in 1977 identified as a CIA front organization.  None of this information is new; Sailer himself has been publicizing it for years.  But it is handy to have it in one place.    

Sailer’s post opens with these sentences:

The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Barack Obama had a little bit of help along the way from the CIA. Yet, the more I think about it, the less important that seems.
If you conceive of the CIA not as an omnipotent puppet-master, but as a player in an international version of the municipal Favor Bank familiar from The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities in which various players scratch each others’ backs, then the idea that Obama might have had a little help along the way (e.g., perhaps a recommendation that helped him transfer from Occidental to Columbia’s International Relations program despite spending most of his time at Oxy getting high), the more likely and less significant it seems. 

The concept of the “Favor Bank” is one Sailer has developed at some length.  Among his interests are the traditional strategies various non-Muslim minority communities in Southwest Asia have used to get by in the centuries since the rise of Islam, and the ways offshoots of these communities in the Americas have adapted those traditional strategies to their new social environments.  So he’s always writing about Armenians, Jews, and others.  Sailer’s citations of a TV show and an 80s airport novel show that he isn’t particularly concerned with the scholarly literature on this subject.  He doesn’t have to give citations; he’s a blogger, not an academic.  Still, it would be nice if he occasionally pointed his readers toward some of already-published anthropological and sociological research.  

I want to make two points.  First, rather than the “Favor Bank,” I would invoke C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “Power Elite.”  In his 1956 book of that title, Mills argued that national policy in the USA is formulated by a “Power Elite” consisting of senior figures in business, the military, and politics.  This elite did not spring into existence overnight, but grew up gradually as American capitalism and military power grew.  Thinking of this elite, I would agree with Sailer that the CIA is not an “omnipotent puppet-master,” and not an alien mechanism foisted on the old Republic, but that it is of a piece with the rest of the American establishment. 

I should think it would be rather interesting if Mr O in fact owed part of his rise to cozy relations with an institution so close to the heart of the Power Elite.  That would show that his left-of-center admirers and his right-of-center detractors are equally foolish in their shared belief that he might bring radical change to the USA.  That Sailer does not see this story as interesting tells us, I think, something about his view of the president.  Sailer wrote a book-length analysis of Mr O’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  The subtitle “A Story of Race and Inheritance” is clearly music to Sailer’s ears; he occasionally ridicules authors whom he believes to be understating the importance of race in the president’s life story, and race and inheritance are the two lodestars of Sailer’s own writing.  If the idea of Mr O’s CIA connections is getting steadily less interesting to Sailer, therefore, perhaps the reason might be that he wants to reduce the president’s biography to a “Story of Race and Inheritance,” and as Sailer learns more about those connections he finds it ever harder to do that. 

Sailer calls himself a “race realist,” arguing that race, which he defines as “a partly inbred extended biological family,” is by itself capable of explaining many social phenomena, including mean IQ scores among various population groups, crime rates, etc.  If Sailer is right and Mr O did inherit connections to the CIA, then his “Story of Race and Inheritance” suddenly drifts outside the scope of that sort of thinking.  He would have inherited those ties through a bureaucratic organization, not through a network of kinsmen.  While the fact that most of the people he has met would classify the president as African American might have given a particular shape to those connections, we cannot know what that shape might be unless we know a great deal about the institutional culture of the CIA in the later decades of the Cold War and something about the personal interactions among the young Mr O and the CIA men concerned with him. 

So, Sailer, despite his eagerness to identify circumstances in which race stands alone as an explanation of social phenomena, seems to have come upon a story which could serve as a perfect illustration of what social scientists mean when they argue that race and inheritance are not things that stand on their own, but that they exist only as features characterizing particular social encounters.  Ideas about race and customs relating to inheritance may shape a social encounter.  What is real, though, are particular social encounters and people who share them, not the ideas and customs that shape those encounters.


  1. lefalcon

     /  April 21, 2010

    Or maybe the whole thing could be summarized like this: He believes white people always succeed, unless they are unjustly penalized for their whiteness; while members of minorities always fail, unless they are given unmerited advantages. Therefore, he got involved in the whole Obama-CIA thing, assuming that — EVENTUALLY SOMEHOW — it could help him argue: “Obama stole the presidency by means of being black!” But then, after a while, he became a bit skeptical and concluded, “Hmm, there must be more effective avenues I can pursue, in furtherance of my strange project.”

  2. acilius

     /  April 21, 2010

    Sailer does have a “sullen bigot” mode, in which he might as well say those things. Most of his posts in the weeks after the 2008 election fell into that category, for example, and it isn’t hard to find appalling quotes from him. But he’s usually a lot more interesting.

  3. acilius

     /  April 22, 2010

    Is this the edition of Orientalism you’re thinking of?

  4. lefalcon

     /  April 22, 2010

    There r probably various editions of _Orientalism_, but yes : I’ve had that one in the picture since the 90s. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read the actual book. But then again, why bother? The interior contents couldn’t possibly be as good as the cover. Not that I support the twisted perversity it seems to insinuate. But from a “graphic design standpoint,” this is definitely a cover that will jump out among other covers.

  5. acilius

     /  April 23, 2010

    It is a memorable cover. It’s ironic that the US occupation of Afghanistan, which was evidently designed by people who were operating under the sorts of ideas Said criticised in his work, has created a situation in that country where precisely that image is reenacted regularly. So far from reforming what its leaders imagine to be a corrupt culture, a “failed state,” and remaking it as an outpost of Western modernity, America has empowered a group of men who openly keep young boys as sex slaves. Your tax dollars at work!

  6. RobStoddard

     /  June 26, 2010

    acilius, do you mean ‘racist’ when you say ‘bigot’ ? Because the word ‘bigot’ is defined as “a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion” according to So when a politician says another is a bigot, that simply means that the two of them don’t agree on certain topics.

  7. acilius

     /  June 27, 2010

    Thanks for commenting, Rob Stoddard! In fact, I did mean “bigot.” There are times when Sailer lets his frustration run away with him, and at those times he does write in a way that suggests “a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.” I grant you someone who writes every day and doesn’t have an editor to catch him when he’s off his form is bound to turn in some weak performances, and when I’ve communicated with Sailer directly he’s always maintained his customary geniality.

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