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Controversial Syria analyst in hot water
01:54 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Elizabeth O'Bagy was fired from the Institute for the Study of War for lying about a Ph.D.

John Kerry, John McCain cited her WSJ op-ed "On the Front Lines of Syria's Civil War"

O'Bagy also was political director of the nonprofit Syrian Emergency Task Force

The institute's director says she is "confident" in O'Bagy's work despite Ph.D. lie

CNN  — 

A lie about earning a Ph.D. cost a Syria expert her job as an analyst days after her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain in congressional hearings about possible U.S. military action in the war-torn country.

Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said she had earned a doctorate from Georgetown University when she had not, the organization announced 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. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately,” the institute posted in an online statement Wednesday.

The president of the institute, Dr. Kim Kagan, said she was surprised to learn of O’Bagy’s lie just before the former senior research analyst admitted it on Tuesday. The decision to terminate O’Bagy’s employment at the institute was made later that day, Kagan said.

O’Bagy was hired a year ago as a research analyst, after she had been working as an intern at the institute for a few months. O’Bagy proved to be an exceptional researcher and analyst, and Kagan said she was “pleased and proud to move her forward.”

Last week, both Kerry and McCain cited O’Bagy’s op-ed piece, which was published in the Wall Street Journal on August 30, titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War.” Part of the debate over authorizing American military action is how many of the rebel groups are extremist and how many are moderate.

According to O’Bagy’s op-ed, extremists and moderates exercise control over distinct areas of the country, and checkpoints are often set up to define territory. Also, there are distinct areas where moderate rebels are in control and can keep weapons out of the hands of extremists, O’Bagy told CNN in an interview last week. Kerry and McCain agreed with O’Bagy that Syria is a secular state; McCain even called her op-ed “important.”

Initially, the Wall Street Journal only recognized O’Bagy as a “senior analyst” at the institute, but a clarification was later added, stating her affiliation with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a non-profit organization based in Washington that advocates a free and democratic Syria.

O’Bagy responded on Twitter last week to scrutiny over her association with the Syrian rebel advocacy group, writing she never tried to conceal her ties with opposition and rebel commanders and is not being paid to advocate her views on Syria. Rather these connections allow her to travel more safely in Syria, she wrote.

“I’m not trying to trick America here,” O’Bagy tweeted on September 7.

Before accepting her position as political director of SETF, O’Bagy had to ask Kagan for approval. Kagan granted her permission because O’Bagy said she would be distributing humanitarian aid to Syrian people.

SETF posted a news release online in May, welcoming “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy” to its Washington staff. The news release has since been removed.

It’s unclear whether O’Bagy still holds her position at the SETF in light of the revelations about her non-existent doctorate degree. The organization declined to comment Wednesday.

According to Kagan, the institute never had reason to doubt O’Bagy’s qualifications, and she could not comprehend any motivation the former employee would have for lying about her education.

O’Bagy was not immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

O’Bagy received a Master of Arts degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown University in May and was allegedly working on her dissertation for a Ph.D, which she told Kagan she had completed later that month, Kagan said.

“I hired (O’Bagy) without (a doctorate degree) and would have kept her if she hadn’t pursued it. So this is particularly sad,” Kagan said.

Despite the lie, Kagan said she is “confident” in the work O’Bagy produced for the institute, because she and other research officials for the institute validate any research and argumentation that is published. Also, O’Bagy never had the administrative power to enter data into the institute’s resource database, she said.

“I do trust her work,” Kagan said.

O’Bagy has appeared on several television networks, including BBC, CNN, Fox and PBS. Last week, she was a guest on CNN Newsroom and Fox News, speaking about Syria. Because of the revelation about her false doctorate, O’Bagy will not appear again as an analyst on CNN networks.