Thursday, September 12, 2013

The problems with political bias in the culture of think tanks: Syria expert Senator McCain cited is not an expert after all

    Thursday, September 12, 2013   No comments

BY ZACK BEAUCHAMP

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.

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