From the Dodgy Dossier to the Cambridge Controversies, Not All Plagiarism Is Alike

The accusations against Claudine Gay and Neri Oxman cannot compare to the scale of what the UK government did when it repurposed my work to justify war

From the Dodgy Dossier to the Cambridge Controversies, Not All Plagiarism Is Alike
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses a news conference in 2016, following the outcome of the Iraq Inquiry. (Stefan Rousseau/AFP via Getty Images)

Peter Oborne, the British author of “The Rise of Political Lying,” recently tweeted: “David Cameron fell for Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier and voted to invade Iraq. So why didn’t he learn his lesson over the latest Israeli dossier before cutting off aid to UNRWA?”

In 2003, the first “dodgy dossier” alleged that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq supported terrorism. In 2024, another “dodgy dossier” has alleged that the Gaza staff of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) collaborated with Hamas to conduct the Oct. 7 attacks. Cameron, the British foreign minister, cut off aid to UNRWA based on the six-page Israeli document, as did several other Western governments. The decision to suspend aid jeopardizes the lives of 1.3 million people dependent on UNRWA food lines, weaponizing aid and UNRWA itself.

Oborne’s reference to the “dodgy dossier” followed another political controversy in January of this year, also connected with the war in Gaza. Protests against the war led to Harvard President Claudine Gay being summoned to a hearing in Washington, D.C., by House Republicans to answer to allegations of antisemitism on the university’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After sustained media attention, she ultimately resigned on Jan. 2, 2024, partly over the alleged plagiarism of parts of her Harvard doctoral thesis.

It was revealed afterward that Neri Oxman, the wife of billionaire Bill Ackman, who was Gay’s most vocal opponent, also appeared to have plagiarized parts of her doctoral thesis at Harvard’s neighboring institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In response, The Atlantic declared “The Plagiarism Wars Have Begun.”

For me, the controversies are linked because of my involvement in another plagiarism war connected to a real war: 21 years ago, the British government copied parts of my University of Oxford thesis in the first “dodgy dossier,” to justify the 2003 Iraq War.

The famed linguist John McWhorter described the recent plagiarism furor as “Gaygate” in his column in The New York Times, but I prefer to call it “the Cambridge Controversies.” McWhorter argued that, in light of such controversies, we need a new word for “plagiarism,” one that helps to differentiate between the spirit and the letter of the term, displaying “​sensitivity to the difference between real plagiarism and the other, accidental-word-copying kind.” In support of his case, I would argue that neither Gay’s nor Oxman’s alleged plagiarism, both of which fall closer to accidental word-copying, compare to the gravity of what the British government did to justify the invasion of Iraq when it copied from my research, word for word, including my grammar mistakes — complete with an infamous misplaced comma.

Several factors help to determine the severity of intellectual theft, including the intent of the plagiarist, the consequences of the act and, finally, whether the plagiarist apologizes for any perceived transgressions. Gay’s and Oxman’s actions may have had major consequences for their respective careers — at least in Gay’s case — and professional reputations, for the chess game of politics can be brutal. But no war broke out as a result. The accident of “duplicative language” can occur easily in a thesis or any published material, and Gay and Oxman have both apologized.

My case is different. My thesis (about the 1991 Gulf War), from my time as a doctoral student at Oxford, was plagiarized more in accordance with the spirit of the term. Gay’s thesis (on minority politics in the U.S.) and Oxman’s thesis (on groundbreaking architectural techniques) constituted ammunition for what Jonathan Bailey of the website Plagiarism Today calls “the weaponization of plagiarism,” the ill-intentioned investigating of cases of intellectual theft to pursue political agendas. Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, has used similar terms, fearing that plagiarism allegations are being “weaponized” to pursue political vendettas and agendas.

The three cases offer different cautionary tales about plagiarism and politics — about what happens when a government plagiarizes for political gain, on the one hand, and about how power can weaponize the more “innocent” form of plagiarism to silence anyone who threatens its narrative, on the other. Gay’s case shows how vulnerable an academic can be in the crosshairs of U.S. Republican legislative politics, while Oxman became collateral damage when her husband weaponized plagiarism charges against Gay.

The term “plagiarism” comes from the Latin “plagiarius” (literally “kidnapper”), introduced by the Roman poet Martial in the first century CE to refer to another poet who had “kidnapped his verses.” The Spanish scholar Miguel Asin Palacios argued that Dante’s “Divine Comedy” could be plagiarized, based on the artist’s access to a Latin translation of “al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya,” written around 1238 by the Sufi scholar Ibn Arabi from Murcia in Spain. Yet during pre-modern history, according to Anya Leonard, curator of the site Classical Wisdom, plagiarism in sacred texts, literature and art paid homage to the original artist. In Confucian cultures, quoting, even without attribution, was a means of showing respect to revered scholars from the past. (Though some Chinese scholars did criticize this practice during its heyday.)

Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College, points to a change with the advent of the printing press in the 16th century and mass-produced texts: “Plagiarism is tied to relatively modern concepts of individual and property, and to intellectual property law.” As this development monetized writing, because for the first time in history people could make a living from writing for the masses, concern for ownership and royalties ensued.

With many works throughout history, it is difficult to draw a line between inspiration and reproduction. The compendium “1,001 Nights,” which includes Aladdin, plagiarized from a Chinese folk tale by today’s standards, and the Grimm Brothers compiled German folk tales, rather than writing them, while both of these examples were “kidnapped” by Disney.

The “kidnapping” of my thesis remains one of the more egregious examples, not merely in my opinion, but when measured in the blood and treasure that was consequently shed. Prior to the Iraq War, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair released a series of “intelligence dossiers”: firstly about Iraq’s (alleged) weapons of mass destruction, secondly about its intelligence agencies and thirdly about its abysmal human rights record, to sway public opinion and the British Parliament’s vote for war.

One of these, titled “Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception, and Intimidation,” was released to the public on the prime minister’s website on Jan. 30, 2003. That dossier featured my plagiarized work on Iraq’s security sector — the complicated and confusing network of Saddam Hussein’s secret security services. Blair handed Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, what he — naively or not — thought was a dossier based on original intelligence material. On Feb. 4, 2003, a scholar at the University of Cambridge sent me an email asking if I had written the “intelligence dossier.” I replied that I hadn’t. Unbeknownst to us, while we were sending emails back and forth, Powell was preparing for his now infamous presentation to the United Nations General Assembly, to be delivered the following day on Feb. 5, where he made his case in front of the entire world for Iraq’s nonexistent WMD program. During the elaborate display, which has gone down in history as one of the most pivotal moments of the early 21st century, he presented a montage of satellite photographs of what he claimed were weapons of mass destruction and played recordings of intercepted calls between Iraqi officers who, he also claimed, were conspiring to hide them. He added, also falsely as it turned out, that Iraq could weaponize enough anthrax, the size of a vial, to infect a city, even though Baghdad had never experimented with such a weapon. Powell then lifted up a document with his hand and paused for dramatic effect, announcing — and here is where my plagiarized work was put on full display to the world: “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.” He was referring to Blair’s second dossier.

The following day, on Feb. 6, Jon Snow of the U.K.’s Channel 4 news revealed that Blair’s office had copied whole sections of this dossier from the internet. The channel did what the Free Beacon and Business Insider would do decades later in lengthy articles demonstrating Gay’s and Oxman’s respective plagiarisms, placing the texts of the plagiarizer and the plagiarized side by side. Of the 19-page document, Pages 6 to 14 were lifted almost verbatim from my work — this sentence, for example, along with its misplaced comma: “Saddam appointed, Sabir `Abd al-‘Aziz al-Duri as head of Military Intelligence.” I had also written that one of the responsibilities of the Iraqi intelligence service was “aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes.” That was juiced up in the dossier into an assertion that the Iraqi intelligence services were “supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes.” This is how my work was used to open the door for trumped-up charges that Saddam Hussein supported al Qaeda, thus aiding the mental gymnastics required to link Iraq to the 9/11 attacks.

The dodgy dossier is often invoked by European politicians and academics as an infamous case of misconduct in the hope of discouraging plagiarism. But the scandal never quite received the attention it deserved in the U.S., where coverage was absent, or at the least understated, over the months that followed and led up to the invasion of Iraq, which went ahead under the pretense of Saddam harboring WMDs. (The only attention it did receive was a brief appearance in a skit satirizing the absurdity of the war on John Stewart’s “Daily Show.”) Indeed, the failure to address the issue as the Bush administration continued beating the drums of war will forever be a testament to the laziness and cowardice of America’s establishment media. It stands in stark contrast to the splashes about Gay and Oxman.

Being plagiarized by the British government would propel me to infamy. While the U.S. media failed, the British media would use my work to point to the flawed intelligence the U.S. and the U.K. had presented ahead of the invasion. Months later, in June 2003, I would testify before a parliamentary inquiry into the actions of Blair’s government, where lawmakers promised to get me an apology from the executive branch. It was Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary and director of communications and strategy, who took credit for the plagiarism of my work. When he testified in front of the same inquiry, the members of Parliament suggested he apologize to me, and he eventually did, via fax. But I didn’t discover the name of the actual person working under Campbell who had copied my document until a final British inquiry gave me that answer, 16 years later.

Further notoriety followed. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote about me in the sarcastic article, “Thank You, President Bush” in The Guardian: “Thank you for making it necessary for Tony Blair to go to the British Parliament with a fabricated dossier written by a student ten years ago, and present this as ‘damning evidence collected by the British Secret Service.’” My story inspired parts of both the British film “In the Loop” and the Netflix series “Inventing Anna.” My life experience of being plagiarized was — and I say this with a sense of irony — itself plagiarized. Based on this convoluted affair, Netflix should really create a series called “Inventing Ibrahim.”

Scholarship on the subject suggests that there are three types of plagiarism. They include “direct” plagiarism, or copying a source word-for-word without proper attribution; “indirect” plagiarism, or the wholesale stealing of ideas; and “mosaic” plagiarism, or changing some words while copying others, attempting to hide the plagiarism. In their doctoral theses, Gay and Oxman engaged primarily in the first. The dodgy dossier contains more egregious examples of the first and third, and to some degree the second.

In her 1997 thesis, Gay used verbatim passages, two paragraphs, from a 1996 conference paper and from a graduate student, failing to cite the scholars. Two of the scholars considered the act minor, as Gay did not pass off any significant ideas as her own. However, another academic whom Gay plagiarized, Carol M. Swain, was more critical in her Wall Street Journal response, writing, “Ms. Gay’s damage to me is aggravated because her early work was in the area where my research is considered seminal.” Furthermore, it turns out Gay was allegedly responsible for plagiarism in later academic works during her career.

Business Insider revealed that Oxman also appeared to have plagiarized parts of her 2010 doctoral thesis, which contains passages with copied and pasted verbatim text.

In his column, McWhorter reminds audiences that in academic publications citing “boilerplate statements” and “assumptions basic to a field,” without referring to the person who typed the words is something “less egregious” than many other forms of plagiarism, resulting in accidental “duplicative language.” Both Oxman’s and Gay’s transgressions seem to fall under this tame characterization.

By contrast, the British government directly copied 19 paragraphs almost verbatim from my work. It changed key phrases in significant ways, such as “opposition groups” to “terrorist organizations.” My thesis focused on Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait leading up to the 1991 Gulf War and contained valuable information for the 2003 invasion, but it in no way argued for the invasion of Iraq, which also happens to be my ancestral home. The British government padded out the plagiarized material with their own pages that argued for military action, which led to personal repercussions for me later. I was worried my family in Iraq would be targeted for having a relative in the Iraqi diaspora who appeared to have written a document that supported the invasion. It was only after I traveled to Iraq for the first time as an adult in 2004 that, to my relief, I found a newspaper explaining that the Baathist government had been happy about the plagiarism, because it proved that evidence had to be fabricated to justify the invasion. Yet after I moved to Turkey to accept my first teaching post at a university in Istanbul, the Turkish media created the impression that I had deliberately attempted to convince the U.K. and U.S. governments to go to war. The headline labeled me “The Man Who Started the Iraq War.” I decided to leave Istanbul after students at my university put up posters with my picture and that title, asking me to resign. I did, with a heavy heart.

According to Bailey, how one will remember the cases of Gay and Oxman will depend on one’s political filter, whether one identifies with the left or right respectively. Both Gay and Oxman became de facto avatars of a political rivalry. “The public is not well-equipped to parse and process a large number of such accusations, especially with the nuance such cases often require,” he says. That also describes what happened to me, as the public forgot what exact information had been plagiarized.

Another U.K. government report, issued in September 2002, caused even more controversy. This report falsely claimed that Iraq could deploy chemical munitions in 45 minutes, a claim reiterated four separate times in its main text and highlighted in Blair’s foreword. David Kelly, a scientist who advised the British Ministry of Defence and who commented on a draft of the dossier, revealed to a BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, that the 45-minute figure was an exaggeration and asserted that Campbell used that inflated figure to make the document more “sexy” or, in other words, to present the Iraqi WMD threat as more immediate and menacing. And so the September 2002 dossier was later referred to as the “sexed-up dossier” and the February 2003 dossier that featured my plagiarized article remained the “dodgy dossier.” During the media frenzy that swirled around these allegations in the U.K., Kelly died of suicide near Oxford.

The dossiers became interchangeable in media reporting, and could have been collectively labeled the “dodgy sex dossier,” since those who did not follow the affair closely would associate me with the 45 minutes claim, assuming I was somehow responsible for it. On numerous occasions, I have been asked how I came up with the 45 minutes claim, and I still have to disavow myself of the flawed intelligence in the September report. In a sad commentary on the sloppiness of how facts are often presented, I was interchangeably presented by the media as both a champion of truth — helping expose U.S. and U.K. government lies — and as a person who supposedly encouraged the invasion. The latter line unleashed hostility toward me both in my personal and public lives — though, in all fairness, it was nothing like that endured by Gay, who has faced death threats and a barrage of racist tirades. In a New York Times op-ed she writes, “I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

When writing a doctoral thesis, unlike a book for publication, one has no editor. In a text of at least 300 pages, mistakes and oversights are bound to occur. We make grammatical errors, and unless we are extra vigilant — tough when burning the midnight oil — we can forget to use quotation marks or cite authors in places where we have copied and pasted. (Thankfully, some software keeps the copied and pasted parts in a different font as a reminder, or it even imports the web link from where the text was copied.)

During my doctoral defense, the esteemed scholar of Iraq, Sami Zubaida, joked about how I had written about “pine trees” in the deserts of Basra, instead of “palm trees.” One of my grammatical mistakes has been enshrined for posterity, used in the conclusion of a best-selling punctuation book, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” by Lynne Truss:

And here’s a funny thing. If all these high moral arguments have had no effect, just remember that ignorance of punctuation can have rather large practical repercussions in the real world. In February 2003 a Cambridge politics lecturer named Glen Rangwala received a copy of the British government’s most recent dossier on Iraq. He quickly recognised in it the wholesale copying of a twelve-year-old thesis by American doctoral student Ibrahim al-Marashi, “reproduced word for word, misplaced comma for misplaced comma”.

So we ignore the rules of punctuation at our political peril as well as to our moral detriment. When Sir Roger Casement was “hanged on a comma” all those years ago, who would have thought a British government would be rumbled on a comma (and a “yob’s comma”, at that) ninety years further down the line? Doesn’t it feel good to know this, though? It does. It really does.

McWhorter concludes, “Perhaps we already have the term: ‘cutting and pasting’ — as distinct from, rather than a form of, plagiarism.” That’s precisely the problem. We live in the age of the easy edit, when science and technology allow us to change just about anything, from our holiday photos to crop genetics. Yet it is these “easy edits” that can make life so difficult for authors of original content. Sometimes the stakes are a career, a job or a political battle. Sometimes they include the ultimate price paid by millions of innocent people.

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