Maintaining the government stables

Funding from the US Department of State and government contractors flowed freely. Was Ms O’Bagy an independent thinker or a suitable pawn?

“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 PhD degree from Georgetown University. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately.”

The factual aspects of the rapid fall from grace of a pro Syrian-opposition analyst are laid out in simple format. But the simplicity with which the story presents opens the door to broader questions.

Elizabeth O’Bagy functioned as a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. She also retained a positional rank as the Political Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. She was sought out as an expert for the trial of former American Army medic, Eric Harroun. On August 30, 2013, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) placed her on the page and purchased her line of reasoning. Voices ‘on the ground’ are surely more valuable than the voices of individuals who are merely seated at their computers doing the digital grunt work.

Ms O’Bagy’s work on the page of WSJ was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain as a reliable analytical source. I found her analysis and journalism written in a rather childish style. Her op-ed flowered with a self-ingratiating headline, “Elizabeth O’Bagy: On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War.” The first two paragraphs quickly blossomed to give the appearance of a seasoned veteran within a hot zone. Yet her unnecessary snipe at Sarah Palin at the end of the second paragraph is a discrediting remark unworthy of anything other than an amateur. To make the page of the WSJ is quite an honour. Major media giants soon came calling. This overly polished apple suddenly found herself courted by CNN, Fox News and NPR.

Rapid ascents to media fame do cause the investigative journalism hyenas to look for signs of weakness. Ms O’Bagy had many. The least of them is weak analysis, which should never make it to the desk of policy makers, much less inhabit a courtroom environment. Her greater weakness, the hyenas soon discovered, is a penchant for lying.

As it turns out, not only did Ms O’Bagy lie about having a PhD, she attempted to cover her initial falsehood with a statement that she had defended her dissertation and was merely awaiting for the degree to be conferred. The truth is much uglier. Georgetown University conferred a Bachelor’s of Art in 2009 and a Masters of Art in 2013. But Elizabeth O’Bagy is not enrolled in a doctoral programme.

There are broader questions regarding Ms O Bagy and her tumble from the media sky. Ponder these questions with me.

Why did the Institute for the Study of War accept a candidate with a falsified curriculum vitae (CV)? Did Ms O’Bagy create her own legend? Or was there a powerful hand that moved on her behalf from the establishment of her CV through the interview process and the final offer of a position? Who deceived whom? Was their complicity in securing her employment?

But it is vastly more important to reflect that all lies are two-tiered propositions. Lies generate immediate and ultimate benefits. The falsehood, “I didn’t eat the last chocolate chip cookie” is a simple one told by many a child. The immediate beneficiary is the taste buds. The ultimate benefit is the full tummy. But in the lie woven by Ms O’Bagy, the immediate benefit was for her career trajectory. In a post-9/11 environment, analysts who make it to the top of the media heap claim a coveted role as the wise sages who advise the powerful. They secondarily benefit from running within the vibrant cottage industry of public speaking in the same manner that many a retired army general is known to make a buck. So we know that Ms O’Bagy benefited from her legend. But who was the ultimate beneficiary from her strengthened position as a senior analyst and a pro-Syrian rebel voice? Perhaps, the Obama administration?

The next question is as follows:

If think tanks cannot be trusted to properly analyse, investigate and vet their own ‘strategic thinkers’, can we trust their findings? In other words, if you cannot find a hole in a CV can you find the hole in the story of a rebel leader ‘on the ground’ in Syria?

Try out this final question:

Although the Institute for the Study of War is not funded by the government, there are a few US think tanks that are part of the government stables. Is their scholarship valid? Is it corrupted? And who benefits from the analyses released? The relationship between Ms O’Bagy and the Syrian Emergency Task Force casts doubt on her role as an apolitical pro-Syrian rebel analyst. Funding from the US Department of State and government contractors flowed freely. Was Ms O’Bagy an independent thinker or a suitable pawn?

So how can we ascertain if a think tank provides incorruptible scholarship? How do we know it is not inhabited by a special class of sea nymphs living on an isolated island awaiting an opportunity to send out their latest seductive call? I believe that Ms O’Bagy was a sea nymph. Like Odysseus, we must put wax in our ears, be bound to the ship’s mast and continue our journey to Ithaca without her. She was a government Siren. And not a very good one, at that.

I cannot confirm the quality of the product delivered by the Institute for the Study of War. I am hopeful they are in the category of older and wiser regarding the deception perpetrated by one of their own. Intellectual treason is an art form.

But as for the government stables? As for the penchant of the powerful to seduce the American public with their Siren song? May we carefully read and consider each piece of information presented to us. The American public must continue to weigh what is offered from the government stables.


The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at