The Syria researcher whose Wall Street Journal op-ed piece was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain during congressional hearings about the use of force has been fired from the Institute for the Study of War for lying about having a Ph.D., the group announced on Wednesday.
“The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University,” the institute said in a statement. “ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately.”
O’Bagy told POLITICO in an interview Monday that she had submitted and defended her dissertation and was waiting for Georgetown University to confer her degree. O’Bagy said she was in a dual master’s and doctorate program at Georgetown.
Kimberly Kagan, who founded the ISW in 2007, said in an interview that while she was “deeply saddened” by the situation, she stands by O’Bagy’s work on Syria.
”Everything I’ve looked at is rock solid,” Kagan told POLITICO. “Every thread that we have pulled upon has been verified through multiple sources.”
Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, told POLITICO in a statement that “we were not aware of Elizabeth O’Bagy’s academic claims or credentials when we published her Aug. 31 op-ed, and the op-ed made no reference to them.”
“We also were not aware of her affiliation with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and we published a clarification when we learned of it,” Gigot said. “We are investigating the contents of her op-ed to the best of our ability, but to date we have seen no evidence to suggest any information in the piece was false.”
O’Bagy started at the institute as an unpaid intern and was pulled into their work on Syria when a researcher needed a fluent Arabic speaker, which transformed her internship into a much longer gig. Kagan hired O’Bagy as an analyst around August or September 2012, and said her understanding was that O’Bagy was working toward her Ph.D. at Georgetown.
Kagan originally gave May of this year as a rough estimate of when O’Bagy’s biography on the ISW site was updated to state she had obtained her Ph.D. But the internet archive the Wayback Machine captured a version of O’Bagy’s biography page that listed her as in a joint Master’s/Ph.D. program as of June 23. Another organization O’Bagy was affiliated with, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, listed her as Dr. O’Bagy on May 13, however.
When asked further about the timing of O’Bagy’s academic claim, Kagan told POLITICO that O’Bagy “misrepresented to me in May that she had successfully defended her dissertation.” Kagan said she then started to call her Dr. O’Bagy, but that the website change only came later this summer when ISW did a broad staff update.
“I began calling her Dr. O’Bagy at that time in internal official communications,” she said. “ISW updates staff bios in intervals. We had a batch of staff changes in June and July, and I expect that we changed it around that time. ISW therefore presented Elizabeth as Dr. O’Bagy on the website quite a bit later than in our internal documents. I have confidence that the public change transpired in accordance with records at internet archival sites.”
Georgetown University’s office of communications, meanwhile, said in a statement that “Georgetown University confirms that Elizabeth O’Bagy received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2009 and a Master of Arts degree in 2013. At this time she is not a registered student.”
According to Kagan, O’Bagy in May led her to believe she had successfully defended her dissertation when she had actually failed her defense.
O’Bagy’s op-ed piece for the Journal, “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” was cited by both Kerry and McCain last week. McCain read from the piece last Tuesday to Kerry, calling it “an important op-ed by Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy.” The next day, Kerry also brought up the piece before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and described it as a “very interesting article” and recommended that members read it.
But the piece had also come under fire for misrepresenting her affiliations. Originally the op-ed only listed O’Bagy, 26, as only “a senior analyst” at the ISW, later adding a clarification that disclosed her connection to a Syrian rebel advocacy group.
“In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition,” the WSJ added in its clarification.
O’Bagy wrote on Twitter after the uproar that “I have never tried to hide that Ive worked closely with opposition & rebel commanders. Thats what allows me to travel more safely in Syria,” adding that “I’m not trying to trick America here. I’m just trying to show a different side to the conflict that few people have the chance to see.”
O’Bagy, who has traveled widely with rebel forces in Syria, had been a senior research analyst with ISW. Her biography on the site before she was fired, according to a Google cache from Sept. 4, stated that “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy is a Senior Research Analyst and the Syria Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War, where she focuses on Syrian politics and security. Her major reports on the Syrian opposition include: The Free Syrian Army, Jihad in Syria, and Syria’s Political Opposition.” Her online bio was also updated last Friday in response to the online furor — spurred in part by a report in The Daily Caller about her affiliation with the SETF — over the WSJ piece to read: “I work with the Syrian Emergency Task Force in an advisory capacity on a number of humanitarian aid and governance building contracts.”
And in the press release announcing she joined the Syrian Emergency Task Force on May 13, the group called her “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy” and said she “recently gained a Master’s in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. Prior to ISW, she received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic in Tangier Morocco and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.”
Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies lists O’Bagy as one of the 20 graduates from this year’s Master of Arts in Arab Studies program.
On Monday, O’Bagy responded to critics of her work on Syria.
“I’m not a warmonger,” she told POLITICO. “I’m not advocating the United Staets start a war or get in the middle of one. At heart, I’m just a researcher. I love being in the field. I love doing the interviews and collecting the data.”