Did Barack Obama lie about his birth to become President?
By David Jones Last updated at 10:00 PM on 27th November 2009
As a highly regarded young detective, Neil Sankey was once seconded to elite Scotland Yard units hunting down IRA bombers, dangerous anarchists and organised crime barons.
Today, however, almost 30 years after quitting Hampshire constabulary to become a private investigator in California, he is wrestling with an inquiry that is as controversial as it is complex; one that makes that his former police work seem mundane by comparison.
Now aged 64, and semi-retired, Mr Sankey is attempting to prove that Barack Obama is guilty of the most audacious act of fraud in U.S political history, having become President when he was not even eligible to run for office.
The infant Obama with his mother, Ann Dunham, who met his father at university
He is conducting his inquiries on behalf of a protest group known as the 'Birthers' - so-called because they claim Obama lied about his birth place to satisfy the requirements of the U.S constitution, which stipulates that the President must be a 'natural born' American citizen.
According to his biography, Obama was born 48 years ago in Hawaii, the 50th state of the union. But the Birthers are convinced that he came into the world in Kenya, his father's homeland, and Mr Sankey claims he has already uncovered a great deal of evidence to support this astonishing assertion.
'As an investigator it has become obvious to me that something very strange is going on,' he intoned gravely when we spoke this week.
'His background throws up all kinds of anomalies. It may sound incredible (but) this guy comes from nowhere. No one really knows who he is.'
To most Americans, of course, the very idea that anyone could cheat their way into the world's most powerful post by rewriting their personal history sounds preposterous.
They dismiss the Birthers as a bunch of crackpot conspiracy theorists and closet racists who still cannot accept a black leader, even though Obama won the election by some 10 million votes.
Yet the number of people who believe this apparently outlandish theory is extraordinarily high, particularly in the southern states, where old racial divisions endure.
According to one recent opinion poll, an astonishing 53 per cent of southerners are either convinced their President really is a covert foreigner, or at least feel unsure about the matter. In more integrated parts of the country, the doubters remain a small minority.
However, with the tide of goodwill that greeted Obama's victory now ebbing away, after a series of perceived mistakes and unfulfilled promises, the Birthers are gaining credence in mainstream America.
They claim to have amassed 500,000 signatures on a petition insisting that the President must prove beyond doubt where he was born; and all across the country, giant billboards are sprouting up which make the same shrill demand.
Mounted this week outside a car dealership in Denver, Colorado, the latest such sign depicted Obama wearing a turban.
'Birth certificate - Prove It!' read the accompanying slogan, adding: 'President or Jihad?'
'Everything I've read about Mr Obama points right to the fact that he's a Muslim,' explained the car showroom's owner, Phil Wolf.
'It's about anti-Americanism. It's about anti-Christianity.'
Questions about Obama's birthplace were first raised during the 2008 presidential election campaign.
Then, even hard-line Republicans and Right-wing pundits distanced themselves from this line of attack, fearing they would be accused of bigotry or cheap scaremongering.
Now that is changing, and one of the country's most respected political commentators, Lou Dobbs, not only encourages debate about this once-taboo subject on his TV and radio shows, but appears to have aligned himself with the sceptics.
'I believe Barack Obama is a citizen of the United States, folks, don't you? But I do have a couple of little questions, like you,' Dobbs remarked with ill-disguised mischief during one recent broadcast.
'Why not just provide a copy of the birth certificate? That's entirely within the President's power to do so. One would think the President would want to get rid of this nonsense. But he doesn't - and so, none of us knows what the reality is.'
Fuelled by a constant stream of internet traffic which casts doubts on Obama's authenticity, the whole issue refuses to go away. And working doggedly in a cluttered office at his home in Simi Valley, an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, British-born detective Neil Sankey is determined to keep it that way.
Former detective Neil Sankey is on a quest to find the truth about Obama's birth
A father of five children, three of whom now run the family investigation agency, Mr Sankey's quest began during the presidential primaries in spring, 2008.
After reading about the Birthers, he met the fringe group's self-anointed leader, Orly Taitz, 47, a one-woman phenomenon who emigrated to America from the former Soviet Union (via Israel), speaks five languages, and is a qualified dentist with two practices, as well as being an attorney.
As she reeled off an endless list of apparent discrepancies in the Obama nativity story, Mr Sankey was intrigued, and offered to use his old school British police training to provide the hard proof she needed to back up her theories.
Since then he has contacted all the 538 Electoral College representatives who formally elect the President, in a vain attempt to persuade them Obama is ineligible to serve, and supplied evidence for a series of court actions brought by the Birthers, in their efforts to have him disbarred.
The latest of these was heard last month in Orange County district court, where the Plaintiffs included the leader of a fringe political movement called the American Independence Party and several disaffected servicemen, who contended that, as a bogus U.S. citizen, Obama was not qualified to send them into action as Commander-in-Chief.
Like every other such case, it was summarily dismissed on procedural grounds even before the evidence could be heard. However absurd such cases may be, Mr Sankey, who works for the group voluntarily and estimates having spent £40,000 of his own money following leads, is at pains to present himself as a level-headed former British bobby, motivated only by a determination to find the truth.
He also bristles at the suggestion that his mission is racially motivated.
'The objection is not Obama's colour but his politics,' says Mr Sankey. 'I like him as a person - I just wish he was genuine.'
So what do we know about Obama's earliest years, and why, even among millions of ordinary, decent Americans, do doubts that he was 'natural born' (a term which is broadly accepted to mean anyone born in the United States or its territories, regardless of their parents' nationality) still linger?
After Barack Obama emerged from the obscurity of backwater Illinois state politics to beguile the world with his charisma and rhetoric, it seemed that every detail of his exotic and complicated ancestry had been laid bare.
He had already published two autobiographies, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity Of Hope, and although they contained occasional perplexing episodes, he seemed refreshingly candid about his unconventional beginnings.
His father, we were told, was Barack Obama senior, a brilliant but wayward Kenyan academic who won a scholarship to study economics at the University of Hawaii in 1959, when he was 23 years old.
In 'Dreams', Obama says his father was given the opportunity to study in America by way of the so-called 'Kennedy Airlift', in which JFK opened the nation's universities to scores of promising African students.
The Birthers' self-anointed leader, Orly Taitz, who believes Barack Obama has lied about his birth
But it later emerged that the great airlift did not get under way until the year after Barack Sr arrived from Kenya: one of many small factual variants seized upon by the Birthers as 'proof' that his story was fabricated. Obama Sr is said to have met Ann Dunham, then 17, when both attended Russian language classes at the university.
Though he had two children already by his wife in Kenya, tribal law permitted him to marry twice, and they began an affair. Ann was three months pregnant when - against the wishes of both their families - they married on the Hawaiian island of Maui, on February 2, 1961. Obama was officially born five months later in the Kapioalani Hospital, Honolulu; a fact which appears to be verified by a document issued by Hawaii's health department a few months ago.
Posted online by the Obama camp in the hope that it would scotch the corrosive rumours once and for all, it is not his official birth certificate, but rather a medical 'certification of live birth' which states that Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu at 7.24pm, on August 4, 1961.
It is marked as having been filed by the registrar on August 8, four days after the birth, and notes that his father was 'African'.
To the Birthers, however, this proves nothing. In fact, it only adds to the mystery, for they question why Obama will not sanction the release of his proper birth certificate, which would provide far more detail.
Moreover, the official seal on the document seems, to their eye, suspiciously faint. And in those days, when segregation was still rife in parts of the U.S., they ask, would the race of Obama's father really have been listed in the modern usage, 'African', when the usual word then was 'negro'?
The Birthers also point to a photograph of Ann Dunham, supposedly taken on Waikiki beach during the summer of 1961. Wearing a bikini, she doesn't look remotely pregnant. These are just two of many reasons why they are convinced that Obama is not who he says he is, and that a very different version of his birth story lies hidden.
The Birthers' favourite theory is that he was born in Mombasa, Kenya, while his mother was visiting his father's family, and that his parents only registered the birth in Hawaii when they returned shortly afterwards, presumably to give him U.S. citizenship.
To support this they have produced various dubious pieces of evidence, most notably a tape recorded phone-call in which Obama's paternal grandmother, Sarah, seems to admit she was in the delivery room at his birth, along with other relatives.
This taped conversation is hardly convincing, however, for the 87- year-old woman's remarks were translated from her native Swahili down a crackly phone-line.
And her inquisitor was the so-called 'Birther Bishop', Anabaptist minister Ron McCrae, who is deeply opposed to Obama, and - say critics - cynically set out to trap her. She has since complained that her recollections were doctored, but, of course, this cuts no ice with the Birthers.
Locked away in a Kenyan vault, they would have us believe, is his genuine birth certificate: a piece of paper that could have Obama drummed out of the White House in disgrace.
According to the most zealous Birthers, however, this is only part of the labyrinthine plot which lies behind his rise to high office. It is said to have been concocted many years ago, by subversives whose aim was to change the face of America by placing a Leftwinger with Islamic sympathies in power.
As evidence that this is already beginning to happen, the Birthers point to Obama's 'socialist' healthcare reforms, his appeasement of Iran, and the government's quasi-nationalisation of struggling banks and U.S. car giant General Motors.
Mr Sankey insists he does not share such wacky conspiracy theories. But then, almost in the next breath, the former detective sergeant - who served Hampshire police for 20 years and left with an exemplary record - ventures that Obama's real father might have been the black revolutionary leader, Malcolm X.
He explains, in all seriousness, how this could be possible. Apparently Malcolm X (who, as it happens, was definitely American-born) visited Hawaii around the time Obama was conceived, and he and Ann Dunham might have moved in the same radical circles.
Conspiracy: Neil Sankey even believes Barack Obama's father could be militant black rights leader Malcolm X, right
Warming to his theme, Mr Sankey directs me to a website which juxtaposes photographs of the two men to compare their extraordinary likeness.
He later sends me a 315-page 'timeline' of Obama's supposed background, compiled by a Brazil-based Birther, which reads like the conspiracy theorists' ultimate wish-list, and draws in everyone from Islamic extremists to Arab princes and the Chicago Mafia.
It all sounds utterly crazy, of course, and involves a plot so complicated that it makes the Da Vinci Code look plausible. Are we really supposed to believe that everyone from Obama's friends and relatives to the security services (who surely must have investigated his background with great care when his victory became likely) would help orchestrate such a conspiracy?
Can we really imagine that Obama's family were so devious - and prescient - that they placed his birth notice in Honolulu's two main newspapers just days after he was born?
As the President's spokesman Robert Gibbs says, no evidence will ever be enough to 'assuage those that don't believe he was born here'.
Neil Sankey insists he is open minded, however, and says he would gladly abandon his investigation, if only the President would provide the incontrovertible evidence he seeks.
Now a U.S. citizen, he claims he is only helping the Birthers because he wants to uphold the constitution.
'It's a beautifully written document and it's served us very well for 200 years,' he says. 'If Obama is who he says he is, why doesn't he just show us that full birth certificate?'
This week, the White House refused to answer his question, saying they had no further comment on the matter.
It is a sad irony, though, that so many Americans feel sufficiently dissatisfied by their first black President that they would rather put their trust in a British detective and his curious conspiracy theories.