Washington Bureau

09.16.13

Exclusive: Embattled Syria ‘Expert’ Elizabeth O’Bagy Says She Made ‘Many Mistakes’

Her research on Syria influenced key lawmakers—but ‘Dr.’ Elizabeth O’Bagy wasn’t who she said she was. For the first time, she tells Josh Rogin that she was never even in a Ph.D. program.

Elizabeth O’Bagy, the Syria researcher at the center of a week-long controversy surrounding her academic credentials and her work with the Syrian opposition, admitted for the first time to The Daily Beast she was never enrolled in a Ph.D. program despite representations she made to the press and multiple organizations for whom she worked.

O’Bagy, whose work on the Syrian opposition was hailed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), was fired from her job as the lead Syria researcher at the Institute for the Study of War on Sept. 10  after it was revealed that she misled her bosses by telling them she had completed a dissertation defense for a Georgetown Ph.D. Subsequently, questions arose as to whether or not O’Bagy was ever enrolled in the joint MA/Ph.D. program that she claimed in her official biography.

O’Bagy confirmed to The Daily Beast that she was only enrolled in a master’s program at Georgetown and had applied to join the joint MA/Ph.D. program but was never accepted.

“I would like to deeply apologize to every person with whom I have worked, who has read and depended upon my research, and to the general public,” O’Bagy said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “While I have made many mistakes and showed extremely poor judgment, I most particularly regret my public misrepresentation of my educational status and not immediately disclosing that I had not been awarded a doctorate in May, 2013.”

The controversy surrounding O’Bagy first began after she published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Aug. 30 that included her affiliation with ISW but did not mention her work with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit organization that works directly with the Syrian opposition as well as with the State Department. Some reports accused the Journal and O’Bagy of hiding her work with the Syrian rebels, despite that she had been identified as a staff member of SETF in several articles.

The Task Force initially waited to make any judgment about O’Bagy, but asked for her resignation on Monday after conducting their own internal investigation.

“The Syrian Emergency Task Force announced officially today that Elizabeth O’Bagy is no longer working with the organization,” the group’s executive director Mouaz Moustafa told The Daily Beast in a statement Monday. “Although the SETF deeply regrets the poor judgment exercised by Ms. O’Bagy in misstating her credentials, we stand by her research on the realities on the ground in Syria. The mission of the Syrian Emergency Task Force is to educate the American public and policy makers on the Syrian crisis and to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need.”

O’Bagy’s latest admission, that she was never a Ph.D. student in any way, comes after a series of articles in which O’Bagy claimed, falsely, that she was enrolled in the joint MA/Ph.D. program. Kim Kagan, the president of ISW, told The Daily Beast that when she made the decision to fire O’Bagy, she was still under the impression O’Bagy’s deception was solely about defending her Ph.D. dissertation. Only after dismissing her did Kagan learn from Georgetown that O’Bagy had never been enrolled in the joint MA/Ph.D. program in the first place.

To this day, Kagan defends O’Bagy’s research, which was based on her connections and interactions with opposition leaders both inside and outside Syria and argued in favor of supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, which she said could play a key role in guiding Syria into a democratic and stable future without Bashar al-Assad. “I have confidence in the work of ISW's Syria team, of which Elizabeth was a part,” Kagan said Monday.

O’Bagy apologized to SETF in her Monday statement to The Daily Beast. O’Bagy also noted that she has disclosed her two affiliations, with ISW and SETF, several times.

“There is little I can do to assuage the lack of credibility this misrepresentation has created, as well as the confidence my colleagues and others who have relied on me may have lost the past several weeks. Their anger and distrust is understandable, however, I never intended to willfully deceive anyone,” O’Bagy said. “Still, I feel the damage I have caused is irreparable. Consequently, I have submitted my resignation to the board of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, effective immediately. At heart, I am a researcher, and I stand by my findings and the conclusions I have drawn from my field work and extensive study of the conflict in Syria.”