Updated om Sept. 19 to add comment from Kim Kagan.
It was, in Washington terms, great PR. Questioning Secretary of State John Kerry during a Sept. 3 hearing on Syria, Senator John McCain read extensively from a Wall Street Journal op-ed by “Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy” about the growing moderate Syrian opposition. The next day, testifying before the House Kerry himself cited O’Bagy’s work in explaining how only 15% to 20% of the 70,000 to 100,000 fighters on the ground Syria were “bad guys.”
It would be easy to imagine that Elizabeth O’Bagy was a venerated Syria expert with decades of experience. In fact, O’Bagy turned out to be a 26-year-old who had first begun to research Syria 20 months ago as an intern at the Institute for the Study of War, a hawkish Washington non-profit. Over the summer, O’Bagy had become the celebre of the Syrian rebel cause. Cable television bookers were ecstatic: an attractive young woman who could talk eloquently about Syria. She was everywhere, doing multiple appearances a day on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, NPR, to name just a few outlets. Washington has a long history of love affairs with motley rebels who look like a better bet for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than whatever autocrat is in U.S. disfavor at the time.
Born into one of the few non-Mormon families in Holiday, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, O’Bagy’s interest in Islam was cemented when her classmates ostracized the one Arab boy in her high school after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. O’Bagy graduated from Georgetown with a bachelors degree in Arabic and went to live in Cairo for two years before returning to Washington to seek her masters and PhD from her alma mater in Arabic Studies. At the end of 2011 she began an internship with the Institute. She was hired a year later as a Syria analyst, making half a dozen trips into rebel-held parts of Syria. By May, weeks after completing her masters degree, she was acting as McCain’s Sherpa for his surprise trip into Syria to meet with rebel groups.
Part of what facilitated the trips was O’Bagy’s side job, approved by the Institute, working for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which both lobbies in Washington for the moderate Syrian opposition and does humanitarian work inside Syria. Through the non-profit, she traveled to Syria to evaluate if the money it was receiving for that work from the State Department was being effectively spent. She met many of the leaders of the more than 1,000 brigades that make up Syria’s opposition. O’Bagy became the de facto expert on Syria because she was virtually the only person with first hand knowledge of what has become one of the murkiest of modern wars, seen by the West mostly in a collection of YouTube videos and frontline tweets. “People say, how can a young woman alone go into these places where reporters are getting kidnapped,” O’Bagy told TIME in an exclusive interview. “I think it was easier because I was a woman. I could wear a Hijab or a Niqab. And you say to men, ‘Please help me,’ and they do.”
By midsummer, O’Bagy had become Washington’s go-to expert on Syria. She gave speeches at universities and think tanks. She briefed 14 Senate and 20 House offices. She was often the first call for everyone from Fox News to MSNBC. She became the face of the moderate Syrian opposition, batting down dovish anxieties that the rebels were riddled with al Qaeda and arming them would ultimately harm U.S. interests. Her rise reached its apex with her Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal op-ed referenced by McCain and Kerry. “The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups,” she wrote. “This isn’t the case.”
It was also the beginning of the end. The Journal at first identified her as just an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War. In other op-eds, O‘Bagy herself had disclosed the dual association, but for the Journal, at the insistence of Kim Kagan, the Institute’s head, she says, she did not. Kagan disputes this account. Critics were quick to point out the Journal’s omission of O’Bagy’s task force work, charging that she was lobbying the same politicians she was meant to be briefing. O’Bagy and the task force both say she was never involved in the group’s lobbying activities. But that first opening led others to look more closely. Within days, it was revealed that Dr. O’Bagy didn’t have a PhD.
On Sept. 10, Kagan fired her. “I should have immediately told them when I didn’t get into the PhD program,” O’Bagy says, saying she let the Institute think she was enrolled in a dual masters and PhD program, which had been her goal. “I was really ashamed, really embarrassed. I’d always been top of my class, in high school, at Georgetown [undergraduate]. I’d never failed before.”
O’Bagy, a registered Democrat who voted twice for Obama, admits now that she was naïve about the Institute and Kim and her husband Fred Kagan. Both were well known advocates for the war in Iraq and for both surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the Iraq War has haunted U.S. engagement in Syria, the association with the Kagans made it easier to dismiss O’Bagy as an interventionist. Andrew Sullivan, a blogger, wrote in a post entitled, “The Neocon Fantasy Machine Rolls On”: “It sickens me to see the same propaganda machine wheeled into action again, and to see Washington take it seriously.” The accusation deeply upsets O’Bagy. “I’ve seen the war in Syria, I wouldn’t dream of sending Americans to fight over there,” she says, adding that she opposed the Iraq War. Instead, O’Bagy advocates increased U.S. assistance, including heavy weapons.
Kim Kagan stands by O’Bagy’s research. “Her work is solid,” says Kagan, who has gone back and rechecked much of it. “I do find it tragic. I think that she’s an incredibly talented person with extraordinary potential who made a terrible error of judgment.” Likewise, McCain told The Arizona Republic on Sept. 14 that, “The points [O’Bagy] made have been corroborated by many others to me.”
As O’Bagy picks up the pieces—she is looking to move to Turkey and continue work with the rebels, though she resigned from the Task Force on Sept. 16—she says her biggest regret is that her downfall has potentially harmed the Syrian rebels. “The worst part for me,” she says, tearing up for the first time in our three-hour interview, “is that because I messed up, because I made this mistake, really good people doing really good things in Syria are being ignored.”