Montana Senator John Walsh Caught In Plagiarism Scandal

John Walsh

Montana Senator John Walsh, who was appointed by the state’s Governor after Max Baucus resigned to become Ambassador to China and is now running for re-election in a race in which the Republican candidate is heavily favored, is finding himself in the middle of a campaign controversy related to one of the biggest parts of his resume:

WASHINGTON — Democrats were thrilled when John Walsh of Montana was appointed to the United States Senate in February. A decorated veteran of the Iraq war and former adjutant general of his state’s National Guard, Mr. Walsh offered the Democratic Party something it frequently lacks: a seasoned military man.
On the campaign trail this year, Mr. Walsh, 53, has made his military service a main selling point. Still wearing his hair close-cropped, he notes he was targeted for killing by Iraqi militants and says his time in uniform informs his views on a range of issues.

But one of the highest-profile credentials of Mr. Walsh’s 33-year military career appears to have been improperly attained. An examination of the final paper required for Mr. Walsh’s master’s degree from the United States Army War College indicates the senator appropriated at least a quarter of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors’ works, with no attribution.

Mr. Walsh completed the paper, what the War College calls a “strategy research project,” to earn his degree in 2007, when he was 46. The sources of the material he presents as his own include academic papers, policy journal essays and books that are almost all available online.

Most strikingly, the six recommendations Mr. Walsh laid out at the conclusion of his 14-page paper, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy,” are taken nearly word-for-word without attribution from a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace document on the same topic.

In his third recommendation, for example, Mr. Walsh writes: “Democracy promoters need to engage as much as possible in a dialogue with a wide cross section of influential elites: mainstream academics, journalists, moderate Islamists, and members of the professional associations who play a political role in some Arab countries, rather than only the narrow world of westernized democracy and human rights advocates.”

The same sentence appears on the sixth page of a 2002 Carnegie paper written by four scholars at the research institute. In all, Mr. Walsh’s recommendations section runs to more than 800 words, nearly all of it taken verbatim from the Carnegie paper, without any footnote to it.

In addition, significant portions of the language in Mr. Walsh’s paper can be found in a 1998 essay by a scholar at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard.

For example, Mr. Walsh writes: “The United States will have an interest in promoting democracy because further democratization enhances the lives of citizens of other countries and contributes to a more peaceful international system. To the extent that Americans care about citizens of other countries and international peace, they will see benefits from the continued spread of democracy.”

The Harvard paper, written in 1998 by Sean M. Lynn-Jones, a scholar at the Belfer Center, includes the same two sentences.

Mr. Walsh does not footnote or cite Mr. Lynn-Jones’s essay anywhere in his paper.

Both the Carnegie and Harvard papers are easily accessible on the Internet.

In an interview outside his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, after he was presented with multiple examples of identical passages from his paper and the Carnegie and Harvard essays, Mr. Walsh said he did not believe he had done anything wrong.

“I didn’t do anything intentional here,” he said, adding that he did not recall using the Carnegie and Harvard sources.

Asked directly if he had plagiarized, he responded: “I don’t believe I did, no.”

Yesterday, though, Walsh came up with a new explanation:

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., says he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder when he used unattributed material in a research paper for his master’s degree.

The senator also said he was dealing with the suicide of a fellow veteran at the time he wrote his paper.

“I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor,” Walsh told the Associated Press in an interview. He talked to the AP after The New York Times published a report about the senator’s apparent plagiarism.

“My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment,” the senator told AP.

Not to discount in any respect Senator Walsh’s service in Iraq and the very real issue of PTSD related injuries, but this strikes me as utterly absurd. The report in The New York Times report makes clear that this could not have been anything other than deliberate copying from other sources. Blaming it on PTSD or his service in Iraq is lazy, and in some ways an insult to the men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are dealing with the consequences of those wars on a daily basis in their own lives in ways that are far more serious than being accused of plagiarism in an academic paper.

Given the fact that Walsh is facing an election in November, of course, the big question is what impact a story like this could have on the race. Even before these revelations, the general consensus has been that Montana is one of the Senate races where the GOP is likely to win a previously Democratic seat. Currently, RealClearPolitics has Republican nominee Steve Daines with a 12.5 point lead in the poll average. One imagines that a story like this isn’t going to help Walsh in his home state and, indeed, the morning papers in Big Sky Country aren’t exactly providing positive coverage for him:

Perhaps this will all blow over, but given the fact that Walsh was an underdog to begin with this can hardly help.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, Congress, Democracy, Environment, Middle East, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    If he had the thesis compiled by an editor-for-hire, it’s possible he didn’t know that material was plagiarized. People who pay “researchers” to, in essence, write their books or other works for them not infrequently get slapped with plagiarism charges.

    I was once hired to fact-check a book for a reputable publishing company. The number of passages I found in it that had been lifted word-for-word from various websites was astounding.

  2. edmondo says:

    I suppose stonetools will amble in later to day to tell how this is good news for Democrats because if they can get everyone who has ever cheated to vote the straight D ticket in November, it will be a landslide.

  3. Tillman says:

    @edmondo: You are such a card. Your bitter cynicism puts a spring in my step. 🙂

  4. @CSK:

    I would leave it to Dr. Joyner or Dr. Taylor to give the last word on that, but using an editor to write what is essentially the equivalent of a masters thesis seems like academic fraud to me.

  5. wr says:

    “The United States will have an interest in promoting democracy because further democratization enhances the lives of citizens of other countries and contributes to a more peaceful international system. To the extent that Americans care about citizens of other countries and international peace, they will see benefits from the continued spread of democracy.”

    I just try to imagine reading these two sentences and saying ‘Hey, those are good! I want to use them!”

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    It’s one thing to hire an editor for a thesis or dissertation. That’s a relatively common practice.

    But having someone ghost — even with significant input — your thesis or dissertation, while probably legal, would be in violation of most University’s code of student conduct and grounds for suspension or expulsion if caught.

    That said, I suspect its far more common than anyone would like to admit:

  7. Matt,

    Thanks for clarifying.

    The other question I’ve seen some people raise is how a 14 page paper was considered sufficient for the kind of work Walsh was supposedly doing at the AWC, but I can’t speak to that.

  8. rudderpedals says:

    Montana isn’t South Carolina. Stick a fork in him, he’s done.

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The other question I’ve seen some people raise is how a 14 page paper was considered sufficient for the kind of work Walsh was supposedly doing at the AWC, but I can’t speak to that.

    Dr Joyner is, without a doubt, the man to ask about that.

    For reference, my Master’s Thesis at the University of Chicago was approximately 50 pages (not including references) with illustrations.

  10. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Oh, indeed it would be. But my point–perhaps clumsily made–is that while the fraud would have been Walsh’s, the plagiarism would have been committed by the true “author” of the thesis.

  11. CSK says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I disapprove of hiring an editor. If you’re doing a Ph.D and you can’t write, you shouldn’t be doing a Ph.D. Been there, done that.

  12. mantis says:

    I have provided editing services for grad students working on their theses, but they were exclusively international ESL students who needed help with grammar, word choice, clarity, etc. (mostly Chinese students, as I am familiar with the language). If you are a native speaker of the language in which you are writing an academic paper, you shouldn’t need an editor. A proofreader, maybe, but you are a graduate student; you should be able to proof your own work.

  13. Matt Bernius says:

    If and when I ever get to that point, I wouldn’t hire an editor. That said, especially for ESL students and people in technical fields, I don’t see anything wrong with hiring an editor (unless you’re specifically in a field like Anthropology or Comp Lit where editing is a key skill you are supposed to be developing).

    Given how poorly many academics write, perhaps we all could use one.

  14. Matt Bernius says:

    If you are a native speaker of the language in which you are writing an academic paper, you shouldn’t need an editor.

    I should note that on my few publications, an editor has always been involved, and in every case the work has benefitted from said editorial review.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: My Master’s thesis for my MA ran to over 60 pages, 14 pages wouldn’t even have covered the quotes I used, never mind the translations I had to generate from the original legal Latin.

    The most I’ve used people as editors is to get a second pair of eyes on the stuff and see if there’s a better way of putting the stuff. Absolutely necessary if you’re dealing with stuff in another language because it WILL slop over to your own writing, sigh. Whenever I’m dealing with stuff from Japanese I put anything I have written away for a week before looking at it for the final editing. Otherwise it’s just Japlish.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. And my Ph.D. thesis in physics came out to 140 pages. Most of it equations, as one would expect. There was a ghastly matrix equation which after LaTeX finished typesetting everything took up a full page on its own.

    (Hoorah for LaTeX! Otherwise I would have never been able to finish writing it.)

  17. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I had exactly the same reaction upon looking into the Times’ “interactive graphic”; 14 pages of text and 96 footnotes, long sequences of ‘ibid’ and misspelling “Samual Huntington” — this gets one a Masters from the War College.

    So much depends on already being a member of the ‘club’ of lifers and careerists. I’d put down a substantial wager that most of his classmates’ work was equally weak.

    I happened to read the Thomas Ricks article in Politico in close proximity to the look at Mr Walsh’s “thesis”. No wonder Mr Ricks’ believes that many of the major deteriorations in our nation are related to military and intelligence failures.

    As for the PTSD issue: I did much more extensive research papers (long before the internet was dreamt of) for class credit in getting my BA during a period in my life when I spent hours every night keeping guard duty through a living room window making sure no VietCong crept into the front yard.

    Screw Mr Walsh and everyone in that club.

  18. ernieyeball says:

    “The United States will have an interest in promoting democracy because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and further democratization enhances the lives of citizens everywhere like such as other countries and contributes to a more peaceful international system as the extent that U. S. Americans care about citizens of other countries like Iraq and South Africa and international peace, they will see benefits from the continued spread of democracy. So we will be able to build up our future. Such as.”

    Miss Teen South Carolina said pretty much the same thing in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pagent.
    Maybe he got it from her.
    48 seconds SFW

  19. DrDaveT says:

    “I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor,” the Iraq war veteran said. “My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”

    Can he possibly believe that voters are more likely to want a Congressman whose judgment is badly impaired by PTSD than a Congressman who is a self-serving plagiarist? Or has he now abandoned his political career?

  20. rudderpedals says:


    48 seconds SFW

    could you link a NSFW version also please? ktksbye

  21. DrDaveT says:

    Oh, and preemptive Jenos strike: yes, this is contemptible behavior, even from a Democrat. No excuses. If he has any honor left, he’ll resign.

  22. ernieyeball says:
  23. wr says:

    @DrDaveT: “Oh, and preemptive Jenos strike: yes, this is contemptible behavior, even from a Democrat.”

    Especially from a Democrat. Because the current Republican party believes that all learning that doesn’t involve Jesus riding on a dinosaur is a silly waste of time that turns you gay. Democrats believe in higher education.

  24. DrDaveT says:


    Especially from a Democrat.

    No, I won’t go there. Democratic politicians are not, as far as I can tell, any more honorable than Republican politicians. The difference between the parties is one of facts and policies, not of personal merit.

    Or, to put it another way: recent Democratic officeholders tend to be personally loathsome in ways that do not interfere with their ability to do the right thing for America. Republicans, less so.

  25. James Joyner says:

    Sorry I’m late to the discussion here. One of my senior colleagues, who is our copyright officer in addition to his professorial duties, circulated this story yesterday for our use as a cautionary tale with our students.

    I teach at an intermediate service school, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and Walsh’s degree was from a senior service school, the Army War College. But the requirements are fairly similar. At CSC, the masters program is optional; at many other professional military education schools, it’s required. But a relatively short paper is often the norm. At CSC, the minimum is 20 pages. That’s light by civilian thesis requirements but the overall course of study is much, much more course intensive at PME than is the norm at a civilian masters program. And, indeed, many masters programs have a non-thesis option. (Indeed, I didn’t write a thesis for mine, instead taking 36 credit hours instead of 30 hours plus a thesis because I needed to be done in a year and was advised to go that route.)

    Plagiarism of this sort would of course disqualify the thesis and, if caught, quite possibly lead to severe career consequences for the officer. But it’s not shocking that Walsh got away with it. And, no, this wasn’t merely sloppy citation—although that, too, would be considered plagiarism at my institution. The fact that he lifted whole passages without even citing the source elsewhere in the paper is a clear red flag.

  26. SC_Birdflyte says:

    My masters thesis at Yale was 48 pages. In those days before word processing, it was a b**** getting all the footnotes (about 25% of the page) aligned with the correct page. It would’ve been easier if I’d been able to omit them (snark).

  27. Grumpy Realist says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: and every single institution/journal /publisher has it’s own way that it insists footnotes be written, sigh. What drives me really crackers is the typesetting…there are people who can tell the difference between an italicized period and a non-italicized period and trying to please them is an absolute bitch.

  28. rudderpedals says:

    @ernieyeball: Gracias

  29. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @DrDaveT: Oh, and preemptive Jenos strike: yes, this is contemptible behavior, even from a Democrat. No excuses. If he has any honor left, he’ll resign.

    Oh, please. Two of the leading Democrats for the 2016 nomination have similar messes in their backgrounds, and it hasn’t prevented them from being hailed.

    Joe Biden: repeatedly lies about his background and accomplishments, plagiarized speeches and biography from British politician Neal Kinnock in 1988.

    Elizabeth Warren: spent years claiming Native American heritage to gain affirmative action benefits, then clammed up and refused to even discuss it when challenged to show any proof whatsoever. Also practiced law in Massachusetts without a license. And her first major work has been challenged as committing major academic fraud.

    If these won’t bring down Biden and Warren, why would this even slow down Walsh?

  30. Grewgills says:

    It is strange that he wasn’t caught much earlier. One would think the paper would have been checked a bit more thoroughly since it was a major graduation requirement for a Masters program. Hell, I have students write more than that every semester and that would never slip by. This reflects very poorly on him and the AWC.
    @Doug Mataconis:
    Fourteen pages seems more in line with a lit review than with a dissertation. Perhaps it was one of several research requirements.

  31. DrDaveT says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: I’m not sure what you think “bring down” or “slow down” have to do with what I posted. I wasn’t talking about the public at large, I was talking about me, in a pre-emptive reply to your inevitable question of why I don’t react with the same outrage when Democrats do these things. The answer remains that I do react with equal outrage when Democrats commit equal offenses.

    Nice try, though, on trying to ethically equate cribbing a speech and plagiarizing a Master’s Thesis.

  32. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @DrDaveT: I appreciate you thinking of me, but Biden didn’t just “crib a speech.” He took whole elements of Kinnock’s biography and presented it as his own — even claiming that his ancestors were miners.

    He also plagiarized improperly cited his source on a college paper, and also lied about his college record.

    As revealed by a video shown on C-SPAN,[32][33] when questioned by a New Hampshire resident about his grades in law school, Biden had replied “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,”[34] and then inaccurately recollected graduating in the “top half” of his class when he actually graduated 76th from 85, that he had attended law school on a full scholarship, and had received three degrees in college.[35] In fact, he had earned a single B.A. with a double major in history and political science, and had received a half scholarship to law school based on financial need with some additional assistance based in part upon academics.[35] During this time, Biden also released his undergraduate grades, which were unexceptional.[29]

    But, in his own words, those weren’t “a big effing deal.” It knocked him out of the 1988 race, but it didn’t keep him from running again, or running and serving as veep. And he’s arguably one of the top three candidates for 2016.

    Maybe I should also remind people that Biden 1) voted against the 1991 Iraq war, but 2) for the 2002 invasion. You sure you wanna have him run yet again?

  33. DrDaveT says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    You sure you wanna have him run yet again?

    Whatever made you think I wanted him to run last time, or ever?

  34. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Matt Bernius: My master’s thesis was 65, and criticized for it’s brevity by some. On the other hand, my field was a liberal arts field, and the university was not a prestigious as Chicago, so that might explain why it was thought that I should write more.

  35. george says:

    @grumpy realist:

    What does editing mean in this context? For my MSc, I had a couple of other grad students in the lab give it a proof read (about 100 pages, but many were graphs and equations – and I doubt even my committee actually did more than skim the equations), and then my supervisor. Arguably all three of them acted as editors (in fact, its expected that supervisors act as editors). For Phd’s its common just to staple together published papers – again a fair amount of outside editing (most papers take at least one iteration of reviewers before reaching publishable form).

    However, that’s different than copying blocks of text and other forms of downright plagiarism (though as WR pointed out, why would anyone want to cut and paste that paragraph, even if attributed?). If that’s what he did, then he committed a major academic fraud.

    If not, is it too late to add the derivation of General Activity retroactively to my thesis?

  36. grumpy realist says:

    @george: Ha ! I’m absolutely convinced that absolutely no one on my thesis committee NOR anyone in the university (supposedly tasked with checking my thesis) did any checking whatsoever. No one, but absolutely no one, noticed that all the footnotes in the body of the thesis were numbered with “0” in the final print run. (The footnotes themselves were correctly numbered in sequence.) I had checked on my side while I was in Japan but had to send a LaTex text file back and obviously whoever worked with it for the thesis printers forgot to run it through the LaTex software the all-important second time….