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This Professor Refuses to Disclose Her Work for an Autocratic Regime. Here's What Happened When I Confronted Her.


The woman across the table demanded to know my cholesterol count. This was in front of 30 others, during an on-the-record discussion at Columbia University, where the woman—an academic named Brenda Shaffer, a Georgetown professor on sabbatical from the University of Haifa—replied to my question about her non-disclosures with questions of her own.

“If I asked you, Casey, OK, what’s your wife’s name, what school do you go to, who funds your scholarship right now, where do you work, how do you pay your meals, how do—what’s your cholesterol count—there’s nothing to be ashamed of in any of those answers,” Shaffer said.

My cholesterol. My wife’s name. Who paid my tuition, thus allowing me to sit in on the panel discussing Azerbaijan’s plans for a Southern Gas Corridor to reroute Caspian gas toward European markets. The panel featured Shaffer and Vitaliy Baylarbayov, the deputy vice president from SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-run hydrocarbon company. Shaffer established her assertiveness early. Halfway through the discussion, when the moderator, Jesse McCormick of the Center on Global Energy Policy, referred to Shaffer as a “panelist," she stopped him. “Moderator,” she corrected. The discussion continued, through some confused looks.

Once the floor opened, I raised my hand, interested in the role Tony Blair was playing in lobbying for Azerbaijan's pipeline interests. I was also interested in Shaffer’s role that day—and why she decided not to disclose her relationship with the Azerbaijani government, time and again, on that panel and in print. A few weeks earlier, Shaffer penned an op-ed in The New York Times claiming that Azerbaijan was the West’s important security partner and that, bizarrely, Russia’s “next land grab” would take place in the South Caucasus—rather than, say, Moldova or northern Kazakhstan. (This claim presumably would prime the West to offer greater diplomatic support for Azerbaijan in Moscow.) While most analysts scratched their heads at Shaffer’s reasoning, others focused on why she wrote the article in the first place. As first reported by RFE/RL, her impetus may have come from her role as an adviser “for strategic affairs” for the president of SOCAR. According to The Harvard Crimson, Shaffer has continued in that position, presenting a distinct, laughable barrier to her claims of objectivity when assessing Eurasian fuel.

When the relationship came to light, the Times was forced to issue an editor's note saying Shaffer had breached a contractual obligation to “disclose conflicts of interest, actual or potential.” Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post followed suit, issuing a clarification on an op-ed in which Shaffer had stumped for Azerbaijan’s pipeline push. It's not clear whether members of Congress knew of Shaffer’s relationship when she testified at a commission hearing over the summer, a discussion in which, in her stated capacity as a scholar, she spoke glowingly of Baku’s role as an American partner.

When I learned Shaffer would be speaking about Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon potential—and when I saw that she would pose simply as an academic, rather than disclosing her position as an official adviser to the government-run energy behemoth—I saw an opportunity to ask why she was so loath to disclose that relationship. “Professor Shaffer, I was hoping to address a question to you,” I said. “Your name has been in the news a little bit recently. You were a strategic adviser, an adviser for strategic affairs, for the president of SOCAR; you had an op-ed in The New York Times that had to issue a correction clarifying that. I was wondering if you might address that, and then whether or not Congress was aware of that relationship when you testified.”

The panel was not only on the record, but open to the public. Instead of answering my questions—about her lack of disclosure to the Times, to Congress, to us—she demanded to know my cholesterol count. I repeated the question, asking if she had any comment about her choice not to disclose the relationship, rather than her interests in my romantic liaisons or financial well-being. “Again, like I said, I’m not going to ask you your cholesterol count,” she replied. “Who pays your scholarship, Casey? How do you pay your tuition here?” McCormick tried to interject: “I don’t think we need to—” Shaffer cut him off, zeroing in on my finances, voice beginning to boom. “Who pays your tuition here?”

McCormick regained control of the discussion, redirecting the conversation back to potentials for Azerbaijani fuel expansion. The back-and-forth between me and Shaffer ended up as a story in its own right. But I never got my answers. Shaffer has since continued offering both broad analyses and arguments against Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon competitors, always as an academic, never disclosing her role as adviser.

Perhaps it’s not fair to single out Shaffer; she’s certainly not the only one who has failed to disclose relations with organizations propelling post-Soviet autocracies. Mark Adomanis, for instance, continues as a "contributor" on Russian issues for Forbes, offering some of the most sympathetic writing Russia enjoys. It also happens that Adomanis was offering this “analysis” on Russia while simultaneously working for the Kremlin’s foremost propaganda outlet, Rossiya Segodnya. Adomanis’s analysis has been shredded by voices far more qualified than my own, but when I asked him whether his work with the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet was paid or voluntary, Adomanis wouldn’t answer. When I then detailed the relationship, he accused me of “vacuous preening.”

Adomanis continues an unsettling trend among Forbes contributors, in which writers fail to disclose relations with organizations buffing the image and reach of post-Soviet autocracies. Last year, Hilary Kramer—who had written a string of distinctly pro-Tajikistan pieces with the outlet—was outed for her relationship with a public relations firm fluffing the central Asian autocracy’s image. In late 2012, as Azerbaijan’s civil rights backslide became a full-blown clampdown, Kramer also staked that “Azerbaijan has charted a path for itself that is not ideological, but open.” Considering Azerbaijan currently boasts twice as many political prisoners as Russia and Belarus combined, the claim is, at the least, questionable.

To Forbes’ credit, Kramer has not written for the publication since her relationship came to light. But Shaffer, for one, continues to make the rounds—with NPR, with the BBC—without pointing out that her position as an official adviser with Baku undermines any claims she has to objectivity.

These people continue to peddle their work, failing to disclose but willing to buff the autocracies swamping the post-Soviet landscape. They're part of a larger nexus of public-relations swill aimed at drowning out human rights concerns in the region. Unlike the questions Shaffer lobbed at me, their conflicts aren't personal—they're business. 

This article has been updated.