Sunday, September 26, 2010

Birther Mythbusting: Leiutenant Quarles Harris Jr. & Passport Crimes

When Birthers attempt to change the subject during a debate they're losing, they usually resort to utilizing one of a number of standard Birther talking points. One such talking point, which has the added charm of being its own mini-conspiracy theory that attempts to implicate Obama in nothing less than premeditated murder, is the name-dropping of "Lt. Quarles Harris."

For instance, in a FreeRepublic thread about Ann Dunham's passport application, "conservativegramma" responds to an on-topic post by starting with this non-sequitur:
Have you not heard of Obama’s passport files break-in back in 2008? Then later a man who supposedly knew about this event or had information preparing to testify was found shot to death in his car??? Lt. Quarles I believe his name was.
First of all, as anyone who's made even the most cursory attempt to check their facts knows, the individual in question was not "Lt." He was not an officer at all, military or police. This error was first made by the Washington Times (thus illustrating how attentively the Times checks its facts), and has been regularly repeated since then, including in two WorldNetDaily articles.

No, his name was "Leiutenant Quarles Harris Jr." He's listed, with that nontraditional spelling of his first name, in the Social Security Death Index, where it also gives his birthdate in 1983 and his date of death, which was April 18, 2008.

Harris was shot and killed that day in Washington D.C. From WJLA, Channel 7:
Officers responding to a report of gunfire in the 2800 block of 12th Street, NE, found the body of 24-year-old Leiutenant Quarles Harris, Jr in a vehicle. Police say he had been shot several times.
And from a WJLA follow-up report:
Police stopped [Harris] and found 20 credit cards and eight completed passport applications. According to court documents, Leiutenant Harris told police he and someone inside the State Department were taking information off passport applications, which they used to get fraudulent credit cards. Another conspirator, inside the Postal Service, intercepted the cards before they could get to the actual people.

Leiutenant Harris was in court for that case three days before his murder. "He felt like he was going to do jail time. He was willing to do jail time."...

Police are investigating the murder, while State Department Diplomatic Security, Secret Service and the Postal Inspector are all investigating the fraud case. The only comment from law enforcement was that it's an ongoing investigation.

Leiutant Harris' murder comes after a spat of violence in the fifth ward. There were five homicides in a four day period.
You can read the actual criminal complaint filed against Harris here, wherein he was charged with credit card fraud.

You may notice something absent from both these articles and the complaint: any mention of the passport breach of the records of Clinton, McCain and Obama that broke in March 2008. It's absent for the simple reason that it's not related. At all.

In the case of the candidates' passport breach, three contract employees for the State Department improperly looked at the passport files of Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama. Two employees worked for Stanley Inc., and the third worked for Analysis Corp.*

In the case of Mr. Harris, he was charged with a credit card fraud scheme that he said involved a State Department employee who fed him passport information that Harris used to apply for credit cards, and a Postal Service employee who intercepted the cards before they were delivered. As I noted above, when he was arrested, Harris was found with 19 different credit cards (plus two duplicates) and 8 passport applications, none of which were in his name. None of the documents were said to be in the names of any Presidential candidates (who would be rather poorly chosen marks in an identity theft scheme).

Were the two cases related? No. There are no common facts or players between them. The Washington Times reported in November 2008 on precisely this question:
Mr. Harris was fatally shot in Northeast Washington in April. Police at the time said they had no information linking his shooting to his involvement in the passport case.

The breach came to light in March around the same time The Times first reported that three State Department contract employees were being investigated for improperly accessing the passport data of presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

[State Department spokesman Sean] McCormack said the cases are not related.
Harris had indeed provided help to federal investigators, but it was with regard to his crimes, not the breach of the candidates' passport files. As noted in his criminal complaint, right after his arrest, at the police station, Harris was questioned by agents of the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Postal Service.** As best I can tell, the only assistance provided to federal investigators by Harris was through this post-arrest interrogation.

Where, then, did the notion that the two cases were related originate? It was probably inevitable that conspiracy theorists would try to connect the two, but they were dealt an assist by the Washington Times article about Harris' death. In that article, the Times mentioned the paper's previous coverage of the Presidential passport breach, but drew no direct connection between the two. Readers, however, appear to have interpreted the mention of the passport breach as evidence of a connection between the two cases.

Conspiracists have been further emboldened by even more inaccurate reporting on the subject, such as that by Bob Unruh at WorldNetDaily. Unruh simply out-and-out falsely reports that Harris was a "key witness" in the breach investigation, based on Unruh's own misreading of the Washington Times article, which he cites as his only source for the connection.

So there you have it. Leiutenant Quarles Harris Jr. was a credit card fraudster and an identity thief, but he had no connections whatsoever with the breaching of the Presidential candidates' passport files, and the only assistance he provided to federal investigators was on his criminal case, not the breach-related misconduct.


* Analysis Corp.'s President and CEO is John O. Brennan, an advisor to Obama during his campaign and administration. Birthers have yet another conspiracy theory about his supposed involvement in the passport breach, but that it wholly unrelated to Mr. Harris, and thus irrelevant to this post.

** To preempt the obvious and inevitable conspiracist response, among the roles of the U.S. Secret Service is to investigate credit card fraud.