WASHINGTON (JTA) — Then-candidate Barack Obama and his campaign team spent months debunking smears that he was a closeted Islamic radical. Now his critics, including GOP lawmakers, have given life to an already debunked rumor that the president signed an executive order allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees “with ties to Hamas” to resettle in the United States.
Though debunked in mid-Feburary, the rumor continues to spread online.
Its latest appearance came March 10 in an article by Adam Hasner, the Republican majority leader in Florida’s House of Representatives, that appeared on the American Thinker Web site. Hasner, whose column criticized Obama’s Middle East policies on several fronts, represents a stretch of South Florida where Jewish seniors were said to be particularly vulnerable last year to the false rumors about Obama’s religious beliefs.
Hasner told JTA that he must have received 20 e-mails mentioning the refugee order, and more than one lawyer said he had checked out the documents online and the claim appeared to be true.
Still, the Florida lawmaker said he had decided to strike the line because he couldn’t be sure of its veracity, but an error in the editing process led to the passage’s reinsertion into the piece. After the article was published, Hasner heard from a friend and expert in the field, who told him he liked the article but that the sentence about the refugees was incorrect.
It wasn’t the first time a legislator had been misled by the e-mail rumor. The day before Hasner’s piece was published, U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) withdrew an amendment to a spending bill that would have prohibited any federal money from going to resettle Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip to the United States. Kyl withdrew the amendment after acknowledging that the impetus for the legislation had been the false e-mail.
Hasner rejected any attempt to draw a direct comparison between the rumor campaigns of last campaign season and the current e-mails about the U.S. policy toward Gaza refugees.
“Those to me were malicious Internet rumors that were propaganda and have no place in the political arena,” Hasner said of the e-mails that falsely claimed Obama is a Muslim. “This was inaccurate information based on a real document, an inaccurate interpretation."
According to Snopes.com, a Web site that specializes in debunking, and occasionally verifying, Internet rumors, the e-mail came from a misreading of a presidential determination Obama signed shortly after he took office titled “Unexpected Urgent Refugee and Migration Needs Related To Gaza.” While GOP lawmakers and other Obama critics have played a role in perpetuating the false rumor, Snopes cites the conservative Web site World Net Daily as the first publication to debunk it.
The presidential determination stated that “it is important to the national interest” to provide $20.3 million from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund “for the purpose of meeting unexpected and urgent refugee and migration needs, including by contributions to international, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations and payment of administrative expenses of Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration of the Department of State, related to humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees and conflict victims in Gaza.” It did not mention anything about Palestinians coming to the United States.
In fact, President Bush had issued a similar directive in 2007 authorizing more than $29 million for refugee needs in Africa and the West Bank and Gaza.
The State Department issued a statement a few days later stating that the bulk of the $20.3 million — $13.5 million — would go to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which operates in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Another $6 million was slated for the International Committee of the Red Cross and $800,000 to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for emergency food assistance, providing medical assistance and temporary shelter and other needs.
FactCheck.org determined that the rumor apparently originated in an article in New Media Journal, an Internet publication which states that part of its mission is to provide "non-partisan, fact-based information on relevant socio-political issues important to our country, specifically, but not limited to, the threats of aggressive Islamofascism and the American Fifth Column.”
In a lengthy article last month, the publication’s editor defended the original piece, arguing that the document was unclear and that the State Department office which received the funds is “charged with, but not limited to, resettling refugees in the United States.”
Hasner said he regrets that the charge ended up in the article but maintains that there were reasons to believe that the information was true.
“The Obama administration hadn’t denied it” or “put out a clarifying statement,” he said. “It was persistent for two or three weeks.”
The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said Hasner was being ridiculous.
If the Obama administration “had to spend their staff resources knocking down all the junk” the president’s critics were putting out, “they’d be doing nothing else," Forman said. "They wouldn’t be able to attend to the economy or foreign policy.”
The main difference from last year, Forman said, is that many people in the Jewish community just aren’t buying the rumors this time.
“I don’t think they have the resonance — last year they had so much more,” he said, accusing Republicans of “looking for anything to see if it sticks.”