Analyst Criticized For Syrian-Rebel Advocacy Connections

During the run-up to possible military action in Syria, the name of an unknown researcher was catapulted into the spotlight. Elizabeth O'Bagy was on NPR, Fox and quoted by Senator John McCain during a hearing. It turns out, O'Bagy is not exactly who she said she was, and her story reveals a lot about how Washington works during times of high drama.

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General Idriss has many supporters in Washington. Even as a U.S. missile strike has been put on hold, lobbying continues apace from both sides. NPR's Larry Abramson has this story on a newly prominent Syria analyst who's facing criticism for her connections to a group that advocates for the Syrian rebels.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: In the final days of August, as military action against Syria became more likely, one name emerged from obscurity.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Joining me tonight, Elizabeth O'Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War...

ABRAMSON: Elizabeth O'Bagy, a 26-year-old researcher in Arab studies, was a frequent guest on Fox. She filled a key role at that time, arguing that most Syrian rebels are not extremists and do deserve U.S. weapons and training.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: These groups have come together in various alliances and rebel formations that many of which are very much aligned with U.S. interests.

ABRAMSON: O'Bagy also turned up on NPR and on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, identified usually as a researcher with the Institute for the Study of War. That Washington think tank is well known for supporting an aggressive military policy, in particular the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. O'Bagy's star rose to its zenith last week when she received a shout-out from Senator John McCain.

During a hearing, McCain asked the witness, Secretary of State John Kerry, about a recent piece that she wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: John, over the weekend the Wall Street Journal ran an important op-ed by Dr. Elizabeth O'Bagy. I hope you saw it. A Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War spent a great deal of time inside Syria, including just this month, and I want to read her assessment.

ABRAMSON: Which backed up McCain's own assessment that the U.S. can arm moderate rebels without helping extremists. O'Bagy's work with McCain goes back a ways. She helped facilitate a trip by the senator to Syria in May. That visit points to a role that was not disclosed in O'Bagy's articles or her TV and radio appearances. She also works as a contractor for the Syrian Emergency Taskforce, which does aid work in Syria.

The group also supports regime change in Syria and favors political moderates who want the U.S. to intervene. O'Bagy told me her work is meant to counter the intense focus of many analysts on the threat that extremists might benefit from U.S. help.

O'BAGY: They study groups like al-Qaida and jihadists and transnational networks, transnational terrorist networks, and that's all they tend to see.

ABRAMSON: O'Bagy's representation of herself as an unbiased researcher has raised eyebrows among other scholars who study the Middle East. Katherine Wilkens with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is concerned about O'Bagy's affiliation with the advocacy group. As a researcher herself, Wilkins says the situation in Syria should not be simplified to a yes or no question.

KATHERINE WILKENS: It's very misleading to try to group the rebels into neat groups of good guys and bad guys.

ABRAMSON: But in times of crisis, Washington craves simple well-packaged messages and Elizabeth O'Bagy was a new face and that helped soften any association with the Institute for the Study of War, well known from its past work on the Iraq. O'Bagy says she herself is surprised at all the attention she's getting from Capitol Hill and from people on the street. She says she's been confronted by angry passersby twice in recent days. The second time it got out of hand.

O'BAGY: Again, called a warmonger, asked why I was trying to drag the U.S. into a war, to the point where they were so much in my face I actually had to push back, and then they punched me.

ABRAMSON: But O'Bagy's rise may be just as brief as it was sudden. She lost her job with the Institute for the Study of War. The think tank says she was dismissed because she led her employer to think she has a PhD, which she does not. But O'Bagy's message may have reached its target. The U.S. is considering ways to step up fledgling efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. The program is headed up by the CIA now, but the Pentagon may assume a bigger role.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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