President Obama’s parents appear to have had a lot more contact with the CIA or with people in contact with the CIA than most Americans’ parents have had. And they had more brushes with violent skullduggery than most would want to endure.
The following facts about Barack Obama’s background may well have no important implications, but, then again, they might be worth thinking about since, after all, he is President of the United States.
Consider Barack Obama Sr.
In Kenya in the 1960s, the three main power players were
- the elderly Kikuyu leader Jomo Kenyatta, whose closest ties were with the British
- the dynamic young Luo politician Tom Mboya, who was publicly funded by the American AFL-CIO and was widely believed to be on the CIA payroll
- and the Luo prince and Kenyan Vice-President Oginga Odinga, who sent his son Raila Odinga (the current Prime Minister, who claims, dubiously, to be Obama’s first cousin) to college in East Germany and negotiated a huge arms deal with the Soviets.
Kenyatta used Mboya to squeeze out of power his fellow Luo, Odinga. Then the Kikuyus turned on Mboya since he appeared to be the aging Kenyatta’s natural successor.
Obama Sr., a Luo, got to Hawaii on the Tom Mboya Airlift, a sizable Cold War initiative to provide young Kenyan elites American college educations. (The Kennedy clan put up some of the money for the second wave of the Tom Mboya Airlift.)
Obama Sr.’s ideology was well to the left of Mboya’s, at least when he was in America (and when he was in closest contact with the President’s mother). In 1965, back in Kenya from Harvard, he published an attack on Mboya’s centrist economic plan. Obama Sr. called for much more rapid expropriation of European and Asian properties in Kenya:
It is mainly in this country one finds almost everything owned by non-indigenous populace. The government must do something about this and soon.
Fortunately for Obama Sr., the equally confident Mboya didn’t seem to much mind the young upstart’s critique. Obama Sr. eventually wound up working for Mboya, perhaps united by their shared emphasis on nationalism over tribalism. With Odinga out of the picture, Mboya appeared the logical successor to the elderly Kenyatta as the biggest big man in Kenya. But Obama Sr.’s drinking—his custom was to walk into San Chique, a Nairobi nightspot, and immediately order four shots of Jack Daniel’s—and Kenya’s growing tribalism worked against his advancement.
Having sidelined Odinga‘s Luo Left, Mboya‘s Luo Right was now expendable too. Kenyatta and his fellow Kikuyu insiders were getting very rich indeed. Why should the gravy train halt and somebody else’s relatives get on just because the old man died?
On the morning of July 5, 1969, Obama Sr. happened to run into Mboya on a shopping street in Nairobi. They joked briefly and parted. Minutes later, as Mboya emerged from a pharmacy, a Kikuyu gunman murdered him. The killer is said to have asked the police after his arrest, “Why don’t you go after the big man?” Yet, nobody bigger was ever arrested. (Most Mboya fans today blame the murder on a conspiracy among Kikuyu insiders, but generally don’t implicate the aged Kenyatta himself.)
Obama Sr. was called to testify at the trial. Five years later, according to the Boston Globe, he told a friend “that he had seen Mboya‘s killer and claimed to be the only witness who could identify him.” (I am not aware of corroboration for that assertion from other sources, however.) Obama Sr. would say he was shadowed by Kenyatta‘s security agents.
Mboya’s name is mentioned only once, in passing, in Dreams from My Father, which might be a significant elision considering the role Mboya played in his father’s life and the eyewitness role his father played in Mboya’s death.
Obama’s remarried mother had a job at the CIA-infested U.S. embassy in Indonesia in the later 1960s, following the bloody right-wing coup of 1965. “The Americans were mostly older men, careerists in the State Department, the occasional economist or journalist who would mysteriously disappear for months at a time, their affiliation or function in the embassy never quite clear.” (I.e., Obama is implying that the itinerant economists and journalists had CIA or other U.S. intelligence connections.)
Over lunch or casual conversation they would share with her things she couldn’t learn in the published news reports. They explained how Sukarno had frayed badly the nerves of a U.S. government already obsessed with the march of communism through Indochina, what with his nationalist rhetoric and his politics of nonalignment-he was as bad as Lumumba or Nasser, only worse, given Indonesia’s strategic importance. Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed Communist sympathizers. The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count.
I was thinking that Obama’s parents probably knew a lot more people who knew CIA people than, say, my parents did. (However, now that I think of it, my parents were old friends with Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft designer Henry Combs and his wife. Combs is “the irascible genius” (according to his boss Ben Rich in Skunk Works, which you should read) who designed the superb “double-delta” shape of the SR-71 spy plane in the early 1960s, still the fastest airplane ever. Combs also worked on the U-2 spy plane in the 1950s. The CIA was the main client for both of his planes, so my parents had one degree of connection to the CIA.)
A major problem with thinking about the influence of the CIA and other intelligence organs down through history is that discussion tends to polarize between those who see the CIA as the puppetmaster pulling the strings everywhere through carefully organized plans, and those who scoff at such thinking as “conspiracy theorizing.”
But what if there’s a more realistic middle ground for conceptualizing the influence of the CIA? Perhaps CIA agents are less master conspirators and more just participants in an international version of what Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities memorably described as the Favor Bank operating among New York civil servants (cops, prosecutors, file clerks, etc.):
“Everything. . . operates on favors. Everyone does favors for everyone else. . . If you make a mistake, you can be in a whole lot of trouble, and you’re going to need a whole lotta help in a hurry. . . But if you have been making your regular deposits in the Favor Bank, then you’re in a position to make contracts. That’s what they call big favors, contracts.
In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Obama were, in a sense, exactly the CIA’s kind of people: leftists, but not Communists, who were well connected in foreign capitals (Nairobi and Jakarta, respectively). Perhaps the CIA had a friendly interest in them? Strengthening an anti-Soviet Left by subsidizing leftist intellectuals had been a prime mission of the CIA since the 1950s. And perhaps they had their eye on young Obama Jr. as the right k
ind of person to know, as well.
The most mysterious period in Obama’s life is from 1981 to 1985, beginning with his trip to Pakistan to stay with Occidental college friends from that crucial country’s political elite (he vacationed on the estate of the politician who was briefly head of state in 2008) through his transfer to Columbia’s high-powered international relations program (e.g., Zbigniew Brzenski’s was based there at the time) where he roomed with a rich Pakistani, through his only real job working for Business International, a newsletter firm that set up meetings between American CEOs and foreign leaders. His description of those years in Dreams from My Father is considered vaguely unsatisifactory by readers of the book from many different political points of view.
Various theories have been put forward to explain the paucity of information on Obama’s New York years: Obama claims he was monastically reading philosophy and taking long walks. Other have suggested, with varying levels of credibility:
- that Obama was depressed (his visiting sister Maya asked his mother, “Barry’s okay, isn’t he? I mean, I hope he doesn’t lose his cool and become one of those freaks you see on the streets around here.”)
- that Obama was, like The Clash (a band who broke up in 1983 in large part due to the devastating amount of cocaine readily available in New York at the time), binging on drugs;
- that Obama couldn’t afford to socialize because he’d blown his grandmother’s whole allowance on drugs when he first got there;
- that Obama was monastically fighting to stay off drugs by avoiding socializing during a drug-dominated era in NYC;
- that Obama was committing crimes with Bill Ayres;
- that Obama was depressed because he dumped his white girlfriend for anti-miscegenation reasons;
- that ghostwriter Bill Ayres’ just plugged in an account of an old girlfriend of Ayres’s;
- that Obama had gone gay;
and so forth and so on.
Another possibility, now that I think about it, was that if, say, Obama’s early 1980s life involved some favor banking (e.g., his mom or dad asking for help from their old Agency contacts in getting him transferred to Columbia in return for which, perhaps, he’d stay friendly with sons of the Pakistani elite and occasionally report in on what Pakistani inner circles were thinking), well that might be something he wouldn’t have wanted to mention in his 1995 memoir written to impress Hyde Park liberals.
Now all this is 110% pure conjecture, but it might help explain a number of things about the President. For example, his two-decade long fondness for Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who sermonizes about how the CIA did this and or did that (invent aids, introduce crack to kill African Americans, etc.). For most Americans, that just sounds ridiculous, but for members of the Obama family, the CIA wasn’t just some mythical beast, it was a living presence in their lives.