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PDF Layers in Obama’s Birth Certificate

We have received several e-mails today calling into question the validity of the PDF that the White House released, namely that there are embedded layers in the document. There are now several other people on the case. We looked into it and dismissed it.

The PDF is composed of multiple images. That’s correct. Using a photo editor or PDF viewer of your choice, you can extract this image data, view it, hide it, etc. But these layers, as they’re being called, aren’t layers in the traditional photo-editing sense of the word. They are, quite literally, pieces of image data that have been positioned in a PDF container. They appear as text but also contain glyphs, dots, lines, boxes, squiggles, and random garbage. They’re not combined or merged in any way. Quite simply, they look like they were created programmatically, not by a human.

What’s plausible is that somewhere along the way — from the scanning device to the PDF-creation software, both of which can perform OCR (optical character recognition) — these partial/pseudo-text images were created and saved. What’s not plausible is that the government spent all this time manufacturing Obama’s birth certificate only to commit the laughably rookie mistake of exporting the layers from Photoshop, or whatever photo editing software they are meant to have used. It’s likely that whoever scanned the birth certificate in Hawaii forgot to turn off the OCR setting on the scanner. Let’s leave it at that.

UPDATE: I’ve confirmed that scanning an image, converting it to a PDF, optimizing that PDF, and then opening it up in Illustrator, does in fact create layers similar to what is seen in the birth certificate PDF. You can try it yourself at home.

UPDATE II: For those of you who still aren’t convinced, here’s a one-page PDF that I just scanned and optimized, so you can see for yourself that an optimized PDF shows up in Illustrator as layers. (I didn’t spend hours getting the settings right.)

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05/18/11 13:24

I've dug around on this from a few angles and am no novice at graphics. While I can't duplicate the layering in Nathan's file at all and only get the layers that I input, it is clear that different devices, pathways and routines can produce curiosities in layering. Speculating on what might happen or might be possible is of course not going to put this entirely to rest.

Again, a direct comparison to other Hawaii long form PDF's would offer something approaching iron clad proof. They all might look like amateur forgeries and a Dan Rather moment in history.

Douglas Preston

05/14/11 01:36

I chuckle at my CAPTCHA "mumbo jumbo"....

Again, for those who care, it seems that this is the federal agency tasked with Public Key Infrastructure. It could have perhaps been a good idea to get these folks involved earlier in the process.

External Link 

Methinks this fiasco was tailor-made to posit the conflict and prompt the resolution. (Preflex: "States ought so clearly now be mandated to participate in a federally managed and funded infrastructure. Don't we all agree now?")

So let's have a law, to keep anything that issues forth from our government from being questioned, (because it's digitally signed), right?

Douglas Preston

05/14/11 01:03

In case anyone cares, the GPO has provided guidance for more than 5 years now regarding authenticating electronic documents to convey trust. It does not appear that many measures were taken to inspire confidence in this document.

External Link 

Peter Noone

05/13/11 22:35

There is no mention in mainstream media about the millenarian motivation for this "birther" movement; proving Obama's birth certificate to be fake is the Holy Grail of proving him to be the Anti-Christ, as stated in Daniel 11, "a king of the South" from Kenya. They believe he was spirited into the US by a cabal of New World Order conspirators, and they focus on the birth certificate as part of this "Rosemary's Baby" narrative they have. This is the epitome of "dog-whistle" topics. Every time the birth certificate is doubted, the critical subtext of such doubt references back to religious anxiety that Obama is the African King of the South (descendant of Ham, whose offspring are cursed to be black) who will wage war against the "King of the North", who the religious right-wing believes to be Russian Premier Dimitri Medvedev. It would make an awesome piece if someone wrote about this connection, I'd love to know more.


05/12/11 16:41

Nathan's example seems reasonable. But why wasn't Obama's shorter form birth certificate scanned the same way? When that PDF is opened in Illustrator, it shows up as 1 image. No broken type. You would expect both documents to be scanned the same way. Seems a bit odd.


05/10/11 16:38

Anyone have a line on other Hawaii long form PDF birth certificates? A direct comparison of documents and layers that went through the same process would be the only real proof either way.

A couple of other graphics friends have also failed to reproduce Nathan's test and in his scanned passport file I get about 100 layers broken up randomly.


05/09/11 13:15

I still don't understand why one word would be split into different layers if the same pen and user signed it.


05/08/11 12:02

I'm anything but a graphics novice, but I can not replicate Nathan Goulding's test to get anything like the sample file that he posted here.

No matter what kind of scanned or raster image I make and import into Acrobat, the resulting output looked at in Illustrator is the same as the layers created in Acrobat.

My question is what image format did Nathan use and what software to create the image fed to what version of Acrobat and Illustrator?


05/07/11 12:11

I tried to reproduce the steps here with an image of Obama's birth certificate PDF using a flatten raster image of the PDF re-imported into Acrobat, but could not get it to produce any layers using "optimize" like in the "New Deal" cover sample. All I can get is a single layer from a scan or flattened image with the normal clipping plane.

Getting a copy of someone else's Hawaii birth certificate in its official PDF format would seem to be the best solution to put this thing to bed.


05/06/11 18:21

Thanks for the real world test of PDF's to Illustrator. It beats all of the swirl of words and beliefs for establishing the truth of the matter.

A more definitive test would be to take Obama's PDF, flatten the text layer and export a PDF of the text over the green background in two layers. Export it two ways with one being optimized and the other not optimized. Then see the layering results in Illustrator.

Actual testing is often worth a volumes of opinion, speculation and imaginings and carries a lot more weight too.


05/04/11 16:08

Regardless of what anyone believes about this argument (and the comments are dizzying when all read at one sitting), the ONLY commenters who have shown real IGNORANCE are the ones who must call names at those with whom they disagree. Do they actually think the ONLY thing about our present administration to dislike is a color??? Check out the newpapers. None of them mention skin, just facts about budgets, Executive Orders, orders to departments and misqualifications of appointees. Geesh - you people who yell "racist" at every argument are the ones who sound racist and totally intolerant to me. Learn to accept disagreements or go back to Pre-K, where they try to curb name-calling.

Bryan E Hall

05/03/11 07:37

This was a great read and thorough. Outstanding follow-up.


05/02/11 19:02

Hey Rube, nice job unironically name-calling and stereotyping while also insulting a group of people for the very same. You keep living up to that name buddy!

Ralf The Dog

05/02/11 17:45

Cool story. Could you please post a step by step that can be reproduced? How did you optimize the PDF? What scanner did you use?

Thanks for the anti disinformation.


05/02/11 17:02

Lucille, please don't threaten to vote Republican. Let's see...from your post, I see name calling, stereotyping...these are typical Democrite traits. We don't need or want you.

Sure, there are right-wing nutjobs. They counter the lefties, both are embarrassments to their parties and their countries.

Be true to yourself, stay a Democrite, and the Conservatives will be well on their way to a deserved victory in 2012.

Lucille Gore

05/01/11 12:59

It is so hilarious that birthers still believe Obama is not a natural born citizen. What evidence do they have that he was born anywhere but Hawaii? None! Yet they still insist he was not born there. Or that, assuming he was, he's not eligible because his father was foreign. That's hilarious!

I was considering voting Republican in 2012 with the economic crisis still hammering our country. But if this is what the Republican Party has to offer -- ignorant, stubborn racists with 6th grade educations -- no thanks. Perhaps I'll vote Libertarian.

Here's a good, more plausible conspiracy theory about the whole controversy: The birthers are really bought and paid for by the Democratic Party, invented by to discredit the GOP. They're doing an excellent job.


04/30/11 16:41

Kenya was in fact called Kenya when it was still a British colony.
External Link 

J. Farrell

04/30/11 15:15

If you have nothing better to do than this, I pity you.

Ian Richie

04/30/11 08:40

Dimdom - your comment is the dumbest comment on this entire thread! Of course Kenya existed before 1963, it wasn't created out of thin air. It was ruled by the British, but it was still a country known as Kenya.


04/30/11 05:22

Does anyone actually think that a forged document is going to be made public when officials in Hawaii who have seen the original will see the alleged phony too? Really? You think officials tasked with safeguarding the integrity of the data in Honolulu would just ignore a fraud? So exactly how many hundreds of people are part of the conspiracy now?


04/30/11 00:50

Birthers, why can't you just man up and admit that you're racist and that you really just have a problem with a minority being president instead of doing this round about dance. Seriously it would be much easier to say "I don't like [insert minority here]" than to go through all these nonsensical arguements.


04/29/11 23:55

I think they use layer just to be able to place the background (small green lines)

Steven Barber

04/29/11 20:51


The passport pdf actually disproves your entire case.

This is because when you try to select the entire document to copy it, and paste into Microsoft Word (to test for how it is layered for those of us too cheap for Illustrator) will only select the layer close to where my mouse was, and not the whole page like Obama's.

Try it.


04/29/11 18:43

To the exceedingly stupid birthers:

Kenya didn't exist as an independent state until 1963.

How can it be that you somehow missed that pesky detail!?


04/29/11 18:30

Question for the author, Nathan Goulding, when you san in a document and open it in Illustrator creating layers as you suggested are all the objects in the same layer or do they show up in different layers?

Please answer.

Iska Waran

04/29/11 18:03

Karl Denninger ( has indisputably proven that the white house document is not a scanned document, but rather a computer-generated document. Various half-baked theories have been propounded to address the seeming layers withthe PDF, but that's beside the point. Forget the layers, the stray marks, the document #'s, etc. NO rational explanation has been given to Denninger's main issue: why the white house document - purportedly a scanned piece of paper - is missing the telltale sign of being scanned by a color scanner. See:

External Link 

"Man up" and attempt a reasonable answer or retract your defense of the white house document.


04/29/11 16:56

Dateline 2060: Parents who wish to ensure that their children can be validated for presidential election are required to have the POTUS chip subcutaneously implanted at birth, containing bloodtype, image of footprint, genome, and parents' genealogy.

Paul the Tax Serf

04/29/11 16:47

I can't drive down the road without a license, two stickers and two plates, most requiring government updating every year. All have bar codes. The bar I work in has, at least, twenty licenses, permits. Every year. You can't do anything with out a government stamp, sticker, license, permit.

So, Barry get's no sympathy from me. Donald got to him, making the GOP stiffs look.....stiff. Now, lets see genius boy's college records.


04/29/11 16:22

There's honestly no point to trying to debate with these people. Anyone who looks at the eveidence now presented who still doubts Obama's citizenship is, frankly, a fool, and wouldn't be convinced if he could go back in a time machine and witness the birth himself.


04/29/11 16:14

I browsed over to NRO thinking I'd get a sample of high-level conservative thought on a number of important issues. Instead, I find that the birthers on this comment thread have morphed into...afterbirthers. Moreover, you've wasted no time in throwing NRO under the conspiracy bus too.

The conservative movement is doomed.

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