Conspiracy theorists, UFO hunters among first to flock to Obama’s once-secret presidential records

·6 min read

Exactly five years after President Obama left office the public got its first chance to request the secret files archived by the administration in January – and hundreds took the opportunity.

While many requests focus on touchstones in the Obama presidency and White House politics, more than a third attempt to dig up dirt on debunked conspiracy theories that took root well before Obama’s 2009 inauguration as well as long-simmering suspicions about the U.S. government.

They asked for everything from communications with close confidantes like Valerie Jarrett and Dan Pfeiffer to interactions with Oprah and Beyoncé. And they checked in on the president's connections – both real and imaginary – to Hunter Biden, George Soros, Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein.

In celebration of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to “educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy,” USA TODAY took a look at 842 requests made to the National Archives for Obama-era information.

The log includes the name and request made by each of the 205 individuals who filed those Freedom of Information Act letters via email in the hours and days after the process began on Jan. 20. Twelve were frequent filers, with 20 FOIAs each, and some of them appear to have used fictitious names and verbatim language.

Former President Barack Obama, left, and former first lady Michelle Obama toss shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Chicago.
Former President Barack Obama, left, and former first lady Michelle Obama toss shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Chicago.

The log contains 81 mentions of Obama’s birth records and one for “a copy of Barack Obama’s DNA.” Some refer to the president as “Barry Sotero” or “Satoro,” misspellings of Soetoro, the last name of his stepfather, which Obama used while growing up in Indonesia before moving back to Hawaii at age 10. That surname was one basis for an Internet-fueled theory that he was ineligible to even run for president because he was a foreigner. More than a dozen requests ask for records of a rumored $65,000 White House hot dog and pizza party that never happened.

Others attempt to answer questions with documents: “Why was (Osama bin Laden’s) body being thrown into the sea that fast?” one requester wrote, referencing the burial at sea off the USS Carl Vinson in 2011. The sea burial and lack of publicly released material from the raid and killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces has fueled conspiracies about how the al-Qaeda leader was killed or if he is still alive.

Requesters sought records tying Obama to misinformation magnets like George Soros, Jeffrey Epstein, Anthony Fauci, Bowe Bergdahl and Anthony Weiner. Some dip into conspiracies that have long been debunked. For instance, three requests ask about Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria in Washington D.C. that fake websites identified as the home base of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. In 2016, it was targeted by a gunman who believed the stories.

Among the top requesters of information appears to be Canadian UFO hunter Grant Cameron who asked about Roswell, N.M., flying saucers and Obama’s relationship with Robert Lazar, the conspiracy theorist who claims to have reverse-engineered extraterrestrial technology at a secret site called "S-4.” Cameron is a prolific lecturer and author who says he became “involved in Ufology as the Vietnam War ended in May 1975 with personal sightings of a UFO-type object.”

Laura King asked for “all information and records on the fema (sic) camps and coffins and gullitines (sic) bought by Barrack (sic) Obama.” That ties together two conspiracy theories, one circulated before Obama was elected about detention camps and coffins ostensibly standing by for an American revolt. The other, from 2013, alleged the administration had purchased 30,000 guillotines for “left-wing terrorists to execute conservatives, Christians and Whites.”

FOIA and conspiracists have “long had a complicated, intertwined relationship,” said Michael Morisy, founder of Muckrock, which helps people file requests online, and “requests become a venue for sharing their paranoid delusions, occasionally to harassing or dangerous extremes.”

“Unfortunately, truth is sometimes stranger than conspiracy and it’s hard to put together a rule around how these requests can be handled in a way that won’t immediately be weaponized against legitimate requests,” Morisy said. “After all, it turns out the Defense Department had a lot more documents on contemporary UFOs than they were letting on.”

Morisy suggested anyone interested in the Obama files research what has been released from other presidential Libraries, aim for specific names, time periods or meetings, and prepare to be patient.

U.S. FOIA requests can be filed by anyone around the globe and generally follow a “first-in, first-out” process for response, rather than being ranked by urgency or legitimacy. Processing likely will take months. Some requesters say they waited up until 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 20 to be first in line.

Among the top requesters for information in the first wave of filings was Matt Novak, a reporter with the website Gizmodo who’s writing a book about the movies watched by presidents at the White House, Camp David and aboard Air Force One. He filed 30 requests on Jan. 20.

Novak says his research dates back to Teddy Roosevelt’s first film screenings at the White House.

Similarly, University of California-Irvine political science professor Matt Beckman is writing a book about entries by presidents in the Presidential Daily Diary on specific dates throughout history. He said he’s studying presidents’ time management and asked for “all entries, even those whose contents are sparse, mundane or otherwise appear unimportant.”

“This is an esoteric little corner of the world that I enjoy,” Beckman told USA TODAY.

And of course many of the requests come from traditional journalists who cover the White House, as well as some with very specific niches.

Diana Moskovitz, investigations editor at Defector Media – a sports blog primarily written by former employees of Deadspin – filed several requests from her staff about Obama’s sports fandom.

She asked for records related to the president’s Chicago teams, but also any records on the New England Patriots, Tom Brady and “Deflategate.” Obama commented about the air-pressure scandal before New England went on to win Super Bowl XLIX in 2015.

President Barack Obama looks over a signed New England Patriots football helmet presented to him by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, left, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Wasington, Thursday, April 23, 2015, where the president honored the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots for their Super Bowl XLIX victory. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama looks over a signed New England Patriots football helmet presented to him by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, left, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Wasington, Thursday, April 23, 2015, where the president honored the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots for their Super Bowl XLIX victory. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

When the Pats visited the South Lawn after winning, Obama said, "I usually tell jokes at these events, but I was worried 11 of 12 of them would fall flat.”

Moskovitz said she’s unsure what the records will show, but noted that curiosity can lead to any type of request. President Trump’s library will begin accepting FOIA requests on Jan. 20, 2026.

“Why is it worth the effort? Well, for one thing, it's worth it because it's not actually that much effort. That's what I love about public records requests,” Moskovitz wrote in an email. “I think sometimes institutions or people like to make them sound harder to submit than they are, and the language around them can seem daunting. But all you have to do is say, ‘I would like to see this and I believe I have a right to see it,’ and that's pretty much it. It's super easy! As it should be!”

Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact him at npenz@usatoday.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Obama conspiracy theorists flock to once-secret presidential records