We already know that the star of ‘Presidential Apprentice’ runs an amateur-hour White House. But Donald Trump’s deputy assistant adviser Sebastian Gorka has come under close scrutiny ever since his appointment on January 22nd, and now his clear lack of experience or expertise has been connected to a very sketchy academic background.
Most famous for his ties to Vitezi Rend, a Hungarian neo-fascist organization which dates back to the Nazi era, Gorka insists that everyone call him “Doctor” because of his Ph.D from Corvinus University in Hungary. Yet when Andrew Reynolds, a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looked into Gorka’s dissertation, he found the Trump adviser’s credentials wanting.
“Two of the three referees did not even have a Ph.D,” Reynolds writes at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “One was the U.S. Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Budapest at the time, while the other was employed at the UK’s Defence Academy and just had a BA from Manchester University awarded in 1969.”
This ‘neutral’ examiner had published a book in Hungary with Gorka three years previously. While graduate students sometimes collaborate with their advisors the independent external examiners must have no nepotistic ties with the candidate.
More important, a basic principle of assessing educational achievement is that your examiners have at least the degree level of the degree they are awarding. Undergraduates do not award Ph.Ds.
The only person with a doctorate to examine Gorka’s dissertation was György Schöpflin, a family friend and “an extreme right wing Hungarian Member of the European Parliament who recently advocated putting pigs heads on a fence on the Hungarian border to keep out Muslims.” Furthermore, Corvinus University is not quite an Ivy League institution, even in Eastern Europe, and has no reputation for security studies.
Daniel Nexon, a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, has read Gorka’s dissertation so that you don’t have to. He describes it as “shoddy,” saying “I would not characterize it as a work of scholarship.”
He makes little effort to consider alternative explanations, use anything resembling a proper methodology, adequately source key claims, cite or take seriously more than a smattering of scholarly works, or even sufficiently develop lines of thought. Parts of the dissertation come across as filler. Perhaps they are.
Sebastian Gorka offers no original insight into terrorism. Instead, Nexon notes a “bloviating tone that runs throughout” Gorka’s dissertation, which never quite establishes a firm basis for his thesis that Islamic terrorism is “irrational” in its pursuit of “transcendental” objectives. Gorka’s data is either very old or worthless.
In fact, it’s not altogether clear what the dissertation is supposed to prove. “Gorka’s contention is that al Qaeda is something new,” Nexon writes, “Or maybe not.” His digression into the history of atavistic cults seems like filler to Nexon, who is no terror expert, but knows a great deal about what rigorous academic work looks like.
None of this should be the least bit surprising. Gorka claims expertise on the Middle East without having spent any time in the region, and he does not speak Arabic. Instead, Gorka has always depended on his personal connections to make up for his professional and academic deficits. A Washington Post review from February cites a primary example:
In 2014, Gorka left to take a teaching job at Marine Corps University that would give him more freedom and new influential connections. The school is part of the Defense Department, but Gorka was not hired as a government employee. His academic chair was funded by Thomas Saunders III, a major Republican Party donor and chairman of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Saunders and Gorka were related by marriage, but Marine officials who oversaw the selection process said they were not aware of the tie. Saunders said he did not advocate for him.
Sebastian Gorka’s simplistic world-view of a civilizational conflict between east and west appealed to Breitbart CEO Stephen K. Bannon, who brought Gorka on as a national security editor at the website and frequent podcast guest. Bannon is also responsible for Gorka being hired by the new administration. No doubt he finds great value in Gorka’s dubious view that the Qur’an itself is a “martial” book that predisposes Muslims to acts of terrorism.
It’s important to note that the inconsistencies in Gorka’s background go back much further than his doctoral dissertation. He claims to have worked on Northern Ireland terrorism in the British reserve army, but intelligence officer Adrian Weale says that’s nonsense.
22 Company was a unit I knew well from my own service. Back then, in the dying days of the Cold War, it was a specialist unit of interrogators and ‘tactical questioners’ with a NATO role. It was an eclectic group of people, recruited largely on the basis of their language skills, who were trained under the auspices of the Joint Service Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent. As the son of Hungarian exile parents and a Hungarian speaker, Gorka would have been a good fit. But it had nothing to do with Northern Ireland, so if Gorka was claiming this in the US, he was being somewhat economical with the truth.
Indeed, Gorka has always “failed his way upwards,” reporter Mitch Prothero writes at BuzzFeed. His career as a putative national security expert in Hungary ended when he was denied a security clearance in 2002. According to sources in Hungarian intelligence who spoke to Prothero, Gorka was labeled a self-promoter because he “was exaggerating the extent of his ties to the British intelligence services” — specifically, by claiming to be an MI6 agent.
The intelligence officer said the investigation for his security clearance did not believe Gorka was being candid. “These claims were not considered credible because by this point we understood that Gorka and many like him didn’t return to Hungary because of patriotism or skills but rather because they couldn’t be successful in the West, where they were born or raised, and thus wanted to come to Hungary,” the officer said. “So do we believe that he was an MI6 agent like he claimed? No, he’s not smart enough or well-trained enough.” The officer said that whatever the reality of his experience with the British Army was, it “was enough for most Hungarians to think he shouldn’t be trusted as a national security official.”
This background is important because it’s not clear that Gorka has even received a security clearance in the Trump administration, either. “What, exactly, do you do at the White House?” asks Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
I bring this up because according to the first wave of press coverage you received in February, it seems clear that you are not on the National Security Council staff, and you do not appear to have a security clearance of any kind. Those initial profiles pegged you as someone staffing the Strategic Initiatives Group headed by White House strategist Stephen Bannon — but now the White House claims that this group never formally existed. You said at one point you were working on long-term projects, but those tasks now seem to fall under Jared Kushner’s bailiwick. I tried searching for you on the White House’s website but there’s literally no mention of you.
Seriously, what do you do all day besides go to conferences, talk to right-wing media, and block people on Twitter? Do you draft memos? Speeches? Planning documents? Do you have any authority in any area whatsoever? Does anyone listen to your advice? Are you speaking to friendly media like Fox News and Breitbart so much because you have no actual policy responsibilities?
All of these questions have come into sharp focus this week after Sebastian Gorka stormed out of a panel discussion because some of the Georgetown University students attending the event began asking questions about his credentials. The self-described “alpha male” was thus unable to withstand academic scrutiny from mere undergrads, which says a lot about the value of his supposed expertise.
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