Did Sheriff David Clarke commit plagiarism?

Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. (left) campaigned for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. A plagiarism allegation has called into question whether Clarke will join Trump's administration. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. (left) campaigned for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. A plagiarism allegation has called into question whether Clarke will join Trump's administration. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

No confirmation from the Trump administration accompanied an announcement by Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. that he would become an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security in June 2017.

Now Clarke himself has speculated that the appointment could be in jeopardy as a result of a CNN report alleging he plagiarized his master’s thesis. The school that awarded him the master’s degree told us it is investigating the allegation.

The sheriff, meanwhile, has condemned the report, telling a conservative talk show host that what he did "isn’t plagiarism," it was "a formatting error."

Plagiarism involves taking someone else’s words or ideas and presenting them as your own. But there is no single precise definition. What’s more, the school itself will be the final arbiter in this case and it has not yet issued a determination.

So we set aside our Truth-O-Meter to explore Clarke’s case.

We found that while Clarke extensively footnoted his thesis, the 47 instances CNN found of Clarke’s failure to use quotation marks amount to more than "a formatting error."

The CNN report

Clarke, a conservative firebrand who runs as a Democrat in Democratic-leaning Milwaukee County, was first elected sheriff in 2002.  In 2013, he earned a master’s degree in security studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He made efforts to keep his regular travel to California secret while he worked toward the degree.

On May 20, 2017, the night of the CNN report, the school removed Clarke's thesis from its website and replaced it with this note:  "This item was removed from view at the discretion of the Naval Postgraduate School."

Clint Phillips, a lieutenant commander at the school, told us it’s standard procedure for the school to remove a thesis from its website and conduct a review when there is an allegation of plagiarism. He said an investigator at the school would submit a report with a recommendation on what action, if any, the school should take in Clarke’s case. Phillips said the school tried to contact Clarke, because he could participate in the review, but that he didn’t reply.

Here’s what CNN said about the thesis:

"Clarke failed to properly attribute his sources at least 47 times. In all instances reviewed by CNN's KFile, Clarke lifts language from sources and credits them with a footnote, but does not indicate with quotation marks that he is taking the words verbatim."

The thesis

Largely lost in the controversy over the thesis, "Making U.S. security and privacy rights compatible," is its subject matter. In the introduction, Clarke argues:

"A policy that incorporates an adversarial process in the FISC (Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court) and a streamlined oversight mechanism in Congress for more effective oversight, and the release of redacted classified documents to educate the public about surveillance techniques, would instill more balance and greater public trust."

Clarke isn’t the first political figure to be accused of plagiarism.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Melania Trump talked about her upbringing in Slovenia and her respect for her husband, Donald Trump. But some quickly pointed out a striking similarity between a small portion of her speech and a portion of a speech from Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. In 1988, Joe Biden was forced to drop out of the race for president after it was exposed that a speech he gave mimicked one from a British Labour Party official four months earlier.

Here’s a look at three examples from the CNN report on Clarke’s thesis

1. Clarke wrote:

In the 1990s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called for the outright abolition of the CIA on the grounds that it had demonstrated it [sic] uselessness for failing to forecast the fall of the Soviet Union.12

Note that the number 12 denotes a footnote that appears later in the manuscript. The footnote says the passage came from a CIA journal.

But there are no quotation marks around the passage -- even though it was taken nearly word-for-word from the journal:

… the calls of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) for the outright abolition of the Agency, on grounds that it had demonstrated its uselessness by failing to forecast the fall of the Soviet Union.

2. Clarke wrote:

Metadata is the envelope of a phone call or Internet communication.47 For a phone call it could include the duration of a call, the phone numbers involved, and when it happened. For an email it would include the sender and recipient, time, but not the subject or content, and in both cases it could include location information.

That’s taken nearly word from word from an article in OSHO News -- Clarke used it instead of this, dropped one use of phone, added involved, used numbers instead of number, and added and:

Metadata is the "envelope" of a phone call or internet communication. For a phone call this could include the duration of a phone call, the phone number and when it happened. For an email it would include the sender and recipient, time, but not the subject or content. In both cases it could include location information.

3. Clarke wrote:

A bipartisan report in February 2003, by senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed great frustration with the Justice Department’s refusal to submit to Congressional oversight.308

Clarke omitted issued and used great instead of deep, as compared to this passage from a 2003 ACLU report:

A bipartisan report issued in February 2003 by senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed deep frustration with the Justice Department’s refusal to submit to congressional oversight.

Diverging views

Clarke, who refused to provide any information for this article, defended himself to the conservative talk show host, Joe "Pags" Pagliarulo, by saying: "This isn't plagiarism. It's not even close to the definition. I've got 362 citations in my 112-page thesis. And I did everything that I could to avoid that."

He added: "If I used a phrase, or a word, that was in that citation, technically you're supposed to put quotation marks around that word that you used in the sentence. I didn't do that. It's a technical -- not technical -- it's a formatting error."

So, by using footnotes, Clarke didn’t commit full-fledged plagiarism -- using someone else’s words or ideas without giving any attribution.

But Kelly McBride, vice president and former Ethics Department leader of the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center, told us : "I think it’s slam-dunk plagiarism."

Clarke’s failure to use quotation marks wasn’t a mere oversight, she argued. By slightly changing the passages, he couldn’t use quotation marks, since he wasn’t using the material verbatim. But by not using quotations, he was presenting those ideas as his own.

"The words aren’t his words," she said.

Phillips said the school began using the plagiarism-detection software Turnitin in 2015. But since that practice wasn’t in place when Clarke submitted his thesis two years earlier, it would have been up to his faculty advisers to look for any plagiarism, he said.

"We’re still investigating the accusation," Phillips told us, saying plagiarism reviews typically take 10 to 14 days, but sometimes run longer. "We’re doing our due diligence with it."

Possible outcomes in plagiarism reviews range from dismissing the allegation to rescinding a degree, he said.