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By Alexander Lane October 17, 2008

The truth fades into the background

A chain e-mail has been burning up the Internet with the allegation that Sen. Barack Obama is not eligible for FBI or Secret Service jobs because of his acquaintance with former antiwar radical William Ayers.

The implication is that anyone who wouldn't qualify for a federal law enforcement job has no business as commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces.

One version of the e-mail we received on Oct. 10, 2008, had the subject heading, "FW: unbelievable food for thought."

"Just passing along info that came to me," it began. "This is something to think about no matter what other concerns may be on your plate. If Barack Obama would apply for a job with the FBI or with the Secret Service, he would be disqualified because of his past associations with William Ayers, a known (and unrepentant) terrorist. If elected President, he would not qualify to be his own body guard!"

It's worth noting that the president, no matter who he or she may be, automatically gets access to any classified information, and in fact has the authority to decide who else in the government gets access to it. Just by virtue of having been elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama already has access to a great deal of secret intelligence information.

Still, that says little about how Obama would fare in a background check, since none is required for either job.

An FBI spokesman said the bureau would not comment on whether any individual would pass a background check, and the Secret Service did not return numerous calls on the matter. So we asked outside experts whether Ayers would pose a problem for Obama.

Ayers was a founder in 1969 of the violent antiwar group the Weathermen, which took responsibility for at least 12 bombings between 1970 and 1974. A pipe bomb attributed to the group killed a police officer and severely injured another in 1970, and three of the group's own members were killed in a 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse in which they were making bombs. Ayers was investigated in connection with the group's activities, but the charges were dropped in 1974 due to prosecutorial misconduct. He emerged from hiding, earned a doctorate in education from Columbia University, and is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like Obama, he lives on the South Side of Chicago.

Obama and Ayers are both active in politics and civic life in the city. They both volunteered at two different charities, the Woods Foundation and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and Ayers hosted a small gathering for Obama and then-state Sen. Alice Palmer in 1995 as Obama planned to run for the seat Palmer was vacating.

Were Obama to apply to the FBI, he would have to fill out Standard Form 86, a background-investigation form used by the entire U.S. intelligence community. The more detailed iterations of the Internet rumor allege Obama would have to disclose his past connections to Ayers on the form, particularly in a section titled "Association Record." It asks seven questions along the lines of these two:

"Have you EVER been an officer or a member of, or made a contribution to, an organization dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the U.S. Government...?"

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The Secret Service did not return our calls for comment about the agency's application procedures, but its Web site indicates that applicants must fill out a modified version of the form called the SF-86A, which asks: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of any foreign or domestic organization, association, movement, group, or combination of persons which is totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive; or which has adopted or shows a policy advocating or approving the commission of force or violence to deny other persons their rights under the Constitution of the United States, or which seems [sic] to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means?"

Note that the agencies ask whether the applicant himself has engaged in this behavior – not whether the applicant knows anyone who has. Ayers' militant activity occurred in the '60s and '70s, when Obama was a child. Even Obama's harshest critics do not allege he had anything to do with them.

So there is no reason to believe Obama would have to disclose his relationship to Ayers, experts said.

"There is nowhere on the form that Obama's relationship to Ayers as it exists or existed would even come up," said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who specializes in security-clearance work. "It would never come up unless somebody mentioned it during a background investigation."

Moreover, even if it did come up, there's no reason to believe it would impede Obama's hiring, Zaid said. "Given what has been said publicly about their relationship, I can't fathom that it would ever get more than a moment's attention," he said.

A second lawyer specializing in security clearances, Elizabeth Newman of the Washington, D.C., firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi & Newman, concurred that the Ayers connection would pose no problem for Obama, even if it did come to the attention of the investigators.

"They would care if there was a recent relationship with someone who is currently on trial or currently considered to be advocating violent overthrow of the government," she said. "But not something that was 20 or 30 years ago."

A third security-clearance lawyer, Mark Riley of Odenton, Md., who is also a retired Army intelligence officer, was slightly less dismissive of the Ayers issue, saying it was "something they would investigate."

But Riley leaned toward the conclusion that the Ayers connection would not cost Obama a security clearance. "The issue is what is Obama's relationship with him in his adult life," Riley said. "If he didn't have one, other than they sat on a board and maybe had the same political causes, that's not enough to deny a fellow a clearance."

So all three of the attorneys we contacted agreed unequivocally that Obama's relationship with Ayers would not be an automatic disqualifier, as the claim suggests.

In fact, Zaid said someone with Obama's record – a law degree from Harvard, teaching experience at the University of Chicago Law School – would be an excellent candidate.

"The agencies would be fighting over him," Zaid said. "As an outright claim, this statement is false."

We agree. It's False.

Our Sources

Interview with Washington lawyer Mark Zaid, specialist in security-clearance cases, Oct. 14, 2008

Inteview with Washington lawyer Elizabeth Newman, specialist in security-clearance cases, Oct. 14, 2008

Interview with Odenton, Md., lawyer Mark Riley, specialist in security-clearance cases, Oct. 14, 2008

Interview with FBI spokesman Paul Bresson, Oct. 15, 2008

E-mail exchange with Henry Holden, author, To Be A U.S. Secret Service Agent , Oct. 15, 2008

To Be A U.S. Secret Service Agent , Henry Holden, 2006

Washington Post, Effect of Obama's Candor Remains to Be Seen , Jan. 3, 2007, accessed Oct. 15, 2008

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Background Investigation , accessed Oct. 15, 2008

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Frequently Asked Questions , accessed Oct. 15, 2008

United States Secret Service, Preliminary Application for Special Agent Positions , accessed Oct. 15, 2008

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Standard Form 86 , accessed Oct. 15, 2008

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