"The Inside Story Of How A Fake PhD Hijacked The Syria Debate"
Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy, Syria expert, made quite an impression on Senator John McCain. During Senate hearings, the former Presidential candidate quoted at length from her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed painting a rosy picture of a mostly secular, pro-Western anti-Assad insurgency.
“John, do you agree with Dr. O’Bagy’s assessment of the opposition?,” the Senator asked the Secretary of State John Kerry. “I agree with most of that,” he replied.
Except Dr. O’Bagy wasn’t actually a doctor. Her PhD was fabricated, a lie she told her employers at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), an influential neoconservative-aligned think tank, to get hired. Ironically, it ended up being the lie that got her fired Wednesday. This postmodern reenactment of the Icarus myth also provides a bizarrely informative window into the way that Washington’s foreign policy sausage gets made.
O’Bagy got her start last year, when she interned for ISW’s Iraq portfolio while completing a Master’s in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Kimberly Kagan, the President of ISW, was so impressed that she hired O’Bagy to start even before the young analyst finished her degree. “Her insights and her [Arabic] linguistic skills were tremendous,” Kagan said.
But O’Bagy had already begun to misrepresent her credentials. Kagan told me that she “knew [O'Bagy] was a student at Georgetown in a combined masters/PhD program,” and that new hire was writing a dissertation on “female militancy in Islamic extremist organizations.” Several media outlets have repeated this account as fact in their write-ups of O’Bagy’s firing, all maintaining that she is still in the process of completing a Georgetown doctorate.
This is almost certainly false. Either O’Bagy was at one point enrolled a PhD program and dropped out, or she has been lying the entire time. Some evidence points to the latter.
To begin with, O’Bagy was enrolled in the Arab Studies Master’s program, which only partners with three departments for joint doctorate programs: Government, History, and Arabic Language, Literature, and Linguistics. Given her purported topic, she would have partnered with Government — according to one Georgetown PhD student who met O’Bagy, she had claimed a distinguished member of the Government Department as her adviser.
She is not listed as a PhD student on the Government department’s website. She does not exist in the university directory. A search of the entire Georgetown website turns up only one hit, a congratulations notice for her Master’s graduation.
There is “no evidence that she is associated with our department in any way; she’s not among our students as far as we can tell,” Daniel Nexon, a Government Professor who served as the Director of Admissions and Fellowships for all but one of the years she could have applied. The professor who was supposedly advising O’Bagy’s dissertation has never heard of her.
When I asked Kagan about the evidence of O’Bagy’s initial, ongoing deception, she demurred. “That I actually need to refer you to Georgetown for.”
After ISW hired her in the late summer of 2012, O’Bagy quickly went about using her top-notch Arabic skills to feel out the situation on the ground in Syria. She made a number of contacts among the anti-Assad insurgents, a feat relatively few DC analysts had accomplished.
Though we know those trips took place, it’s not quite clear who funded them. It certainly wasn’t ISW: when I asked Kagan how O’Bagy made all her Syrian friends, she sounded stumped. “That’s a really good question. I’m afraid I can’t really tell you that,” the ISW President said, acknowledging that O’Bagy’s expertise wasn’t gathered through ISW projects or ISW-funded trips. “She kept me informed about [her opposition contacts] and apprised me that they existed.”
However O’Bagy acquired her contacts, the work they helped her produce was influential and widely respected. Over the course of roughly a year, she went from a graduate student and intern to a pundit making regular appearances on Fox News and being published in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and well, The Wall Street Journal. She was promoted to Senior Analyst and then to Syria Team Lead at ISW, and had become known as a go-to expert on the Syrian rebels among foreign policy experts.
But the closer Icarus flew to the sun, the faster the wax on her feathers began to melt. The first hard record of her claiming a doctorate came in April 2013, when she told a friend, Jonathan Rue, that she was “soon to be Dr. O’Bagy.” According to Kagan, she began widely claiming the Dr. title in May, right around when she graduated from her Master’s program.
That’s also when she took on a second position as the Political Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a pro-Syrian rebel lobbying group that identified her as “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy.” It’s in that capacity when she and Senator McCain likely first came into direct or indirect contact, as SETF assisted in planning the Senator’s secret trip to Syria.
The implicit tension between O’Bagy’s prominent public role and her fake credentials became unbearable after McCain and Kerry touted her work in the closely watched hearings on Congressional authorization for war in Syria. But weirdly, the first questions raised about O’Bagy weren’t because of anything she did wrong personally. The Journal op-ed cited by Kerry and McCain did not identify O’Bagy’s role at SETF, relevant information for readers of a piece that paints a picture of the Syrian opposition as relatively moderate.
The Journal’s mistake (which it later corrected) led to more intense scrutiny of O’Bagy’s past. The Daily Caller, which first broke the Journal’s omission on September 5th, did a follow-up on September 9th in which O’Bagy claimed to have written her dissertation.
More importantly, September 9th was also the day that a discussion broke out amongst a group of scholars about O’Bagy’s purported Georgetown credentials. Records obtained by ThinkProgress show a conversation, which included members of the Georgetown faculty, in which a number of academics expressed deep skepticism about O’Bagy’s Ph.D. Near the end of the conversation, one participant mentioned that “ISW was contacted” with the group’s concerns.
Just days before, on September 4th, ISW’s website had described her as “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy.” I confirmed with Kagan that O’Bagy had not updated the bio herself, indicating that ISW support staff had been notified of the purported change in O’Bagy’s status. By late on the 9th, the Dr. reference had been deleted, and O’Bagy had been dismissed — a move that was announced on the morning of the 10th.
Kagan credits O’Bagy with finally turning herself in. “I think the most important thing that I need to tell you is that Elizabeth told me [on the 9th] that she had not successfully defended her dissertation.” It’s not clear what finally prompted her to do that. I asked Kagan to forward a request for comment to O’Bagy but, as of yet, have heard nothing. I probably won’t: O’Bagy told Buzzfeed that she is “no longer legally allowed to discuss my employment with [ISW] or affiliate it any way.” So there’s a decent chance we’ll never know the whole story.
Regardless, O’Bagy’s rise and fall is yet more evidence that the talented people who populate America’s media and policy apparatus never seem to quite fully internalize: never, ever lie about something someone else can prove you wrong about. You’re going to get caught.