The Authority Trap: Elizabeth O’Bagey’s Three Ethics Strikes

Woman-pulling-off-a-mask

It is not, you see, enough to have a good idea, an original argument, or a brilliant solution.There must be reason for important people, people who make decisions that affect lives, to pay any more attention to you than they do anyone else who claims to have such things, because its is often difficult for even intelligent and experienced individuals to distinguish genius from well-expressed garbage. There must be something that elevates that unique and valuable perspective you bring to a problem above the swirling mess and noise generated by the blabbering and shouting competition, and the thing is, if you really have a valuable perspective to contribute, you owe it to not just yourself, but to your country, even humanity.

There is one asset, if you are otherwise unknown, that will provide that elevation besides the inherent virtues of your brilliant idea, and that is authority...a book, a connection everybody knows and respects, or, perhaps most of all, academic credentials. And there are two things that will make it impossible to raise your special contribution above the throng, and they are a conflict of interest, and a reputation for hiding the truth. These are the murderers of trust.

This brings us to the strange case of Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, who managed to get the Wall Street Journal to publish her analysis of the civil war in Syria, and her conclusions, based, we were to assume, on her study, analysis and time in the country, regarding the benefits of U.S. employment of military force in the region. The Journal, and presumably readers, gave her analysis credence based on her status as a PhD (that means certified smart person) as well as the absence of any reason to believe that her analysis wasn’t objective. First Senator John McCain and then Secretary of State John Kerry used her article, and her credentials and credibility, in their statements last week regarding the proper U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

O’Bagy was not objective, however; she is an advocate. She 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.  After the Journal was forced to add her affiliation to the article, O’Bagy protested on Twitter after the uproar that “I have never tried to hide that I’ve worked closely with opposition & rebel commanders. That’s what allows me to travel more safely in Syria”…“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.” “Not trying to hide” an affiliation that puts her analysis squarely in the category of advocacy and creates a conflict of interest if her opinion is to be regarded as objective isn’t enough. She had an affirmative obligation to state her conflict up front, to disclose it. Where obvious potential conflicts are involved, failure to disclose is “trying to hide it.”

Ethics Strike One.

And she was not a PhD, either!  Once her conflict was uncovered, journalists did some digging (as indeed Sen. McCain’s staff and Sec. Kerry’s should have done before they used her article as authority in public statements) and discovered that her representation of herself as the holder of a doctorate was false. Indeed, her employers at the Institute for the Study of War were also under the impression, based on her representations, that she was a bona fide PhD: her colleagues were calling her “Doctor.” In other words, she was a fraud. The institute fired her.

Ethics Strike Two.

The Institute tried to save face by saying that there was nothing wrong with her analysis in the Journal op-ed despite the fact that she had a conflict and fabricated credentials. Sure there was: she can’t be trusted. She lied, and her objectivity was compromised. Her opinion, expert, informed, well-considered or otherwise, is exactly as suspect as she is.

Then, long after she had written multiple articles misrepresenting her credentials, and after she had been fired from the Institute (which was still under the impression that the nature of  O’Bagy’s deception was that she was already a PhD when in fact the verdict on her dissertation was only pending), after her views had arguably affected deliberations and public statements by US officials in a matter involving life, death, a war-torn nation, a President’s credibility, his image abroad, our image abroad, the Middle East region, future dealings with Iran and Israel, and U.S. power and influence for years to come, O’Bagy came clean–well, almost— in a statement to the media:

“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. 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.

[In fact, she had never been even been accepted into a doctorate program.]

Continuing…

“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. 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.”

That’s Ethics Strike Three.

She just couldn’t bring herself to admit the whole truth. She falsely claimed that she was working on a credential that was  asserted on her official biography, she misinformed her employers and colleagues, she withheld the truth about this and as well as her role as an advocate for the Syrian opposition from the public, and she still claimed that she “never intended to willfully deceive anyone.”  That is a lie. What else can it be? Are we supposed to assume that she really believed that she was in a doctoral program? That some malign force made her misrepresent herself and her credentials? She lied, deliberately, over a considerable period of time, to many people and organizations to whom she had an ethical obligation to be truthful and candid, and now she’s lying about those lies, even as she apologizes for them.

Three strikes, and she’s out, for good and forever. The authority she tried to manufacture can never be acquired now. She should not get a second chance: the deceptive apology settles that question. Unfortunately, the ethics of the news media being what it is, I will not be at all surprised to see her turn up as a contributor on CNN, since she is attractive, or on Fox…if she dyes her hair blonde, of course.

In today’s media, notoriety can be as marketable as authority, and maybe moreso, if you’re easy on the eyes.

__________________________
Sources: Wall Street Journal, Politico, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Daily Beast

Graphic: Raw Story

14 thoughts on “The Authority Trap: Elizabeth O’Bagey’s Three Ethics Strikes

  1. I would add that , not only does Elizabeth O’Bagy unethical action call into question her credibility, it would call into question the credibility of anyone relying on her expertise and experience, including but not limited to Senator McCain, Secretary Kerry, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and the Institute for the Study of War, whose Missions Statement reads as follows”

    “We are on the front lines of military thinking.

    “Our Mission

    “The Institute for the Study of War advances an informed understanding of military affairs through reliable research, trusted analysis, and innovative education. We are committed to improving the nation’s ability to execute military operations and respond to emerging threats in order to achieve U.S. strategic objectives. ISW is a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization.”

    See, http://www.understandingwar.org. The website further states that, “[t]he 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.”

    It would appear that the ISW wholly failed in its mission statement if it did not verify the credentials of one of its reputed analysts. Consequently, its credibility should be questioned as well.

    As for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, any comments or statements she made about the make up of the Syrian resistance forces should be disregarded as biased.

    jvb

  2. “And there are two things that will make it impossible to raise your special contribution above the throng, and they are a conflict of interest, and a reputation for hiding the truth.”

    You wish.

  3. I just find this story… pathetic. What did she think would happen? At least she’s young enough to start her life over in a different occupation. If you’re going to be publicly disgraced, it’s probably best to do it young.

    I don’t agree that McCain or Kerry should be expected to check to find out whether or not a particular researcher lied about her PhD. Any more than I’ve called my doctor’s college to make sure that her degree isn’t fake. Unless there’s some reason to think con artists like O’Bagy are common, double-checking researchers’ phds doesn’t seem like an effective use of time. (Consider how many thousands of reports Congress must use every year, many of them with multiple authors).

    • I think you’re on solid ground regarding Kerry and McCain, though I wonder if that ground isn’t getting progressively more spongy as fake credentials become more widespread and routine. Fake authority has done so much harm lately that I wonder if we aren’t getting to the point where bad faith, rather than good faith, should be the presumption until otherwise confirmed.

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