Gorka was born in the United Kingdom to Hungarian parents, lived in Hungary from 1992 to 2008, and in 2012 became a naturalized American citizen. Gorka has written for a variety of publications, is generally considered politically conservative and has ties to the alt-right.
During his time in the Trump administration, Gorka gave a series of combative interviews with the press in which he defended the administration's positions on national security and foreign policy. Various national security scholars in academic and policymaking circles have characterized Gorka as fringe. Some critics have challenged his academic credentials, his views on Islam and radicalization—as well as his motives for identifying with the Order of Vitéz or supporting the EU-banned Hungarian Guard.
Gorka was born in Hammersmith, London, on October 22, 1970, to Zsuzsa (Susan) Biro and Pál (Paul) Gorka. They had fled to the United Kingdom from Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising. He attended St Benedict's School in west London, and received a lower second-class honours (2:2) Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and theology from Heythrop College, of the University of London. While at university, he joined the British Territorial Army as a volunteer (typically committing to a weekend a month and a fortnight's annual camp), serving over a period of three years in the 22 Intelligence Company of the Intelligence and Security Group (Volunteers), an interrogation unit with a NATO role specializing in Russian language training and supporting 1 (BR) Corps until the latter was disbanded in 1992 at the end of the Cold War. In 1992, he moved to Hungary, where he worked for the Hungarian Ministry of Defence while studying for a master's degree in international relations and diplomacy at the Budapest University of Economic Sciences and Public Administration, now known as the Corvinus University, which he completed in 1997. In 1997, he was a Partnership for Peace International research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome. Gorka was a Kokkalis Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University during the 1998–1999 academic year.
In 1998, Gorka served as an adviser to Viktor Orbán. In 2002, he entered the political science doctoral program at Corvinus University, completing his dissertation in 2007. Gorka is a naturalized American citizen.
Gorka worked in the Hungarian Ministry of Defense during the prime ministership of József Antall.
Following the September 11 attacks, Gorka became a public figure in Hungary as a television counterterrorism expert. This led to his being asked in 2002 to serve as an official expert on the parliamentary investigatory committee created to uncover the Communist background of the new Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy. Medgyessy had acted as a counterespionage officer for the Ministry of Internal Affairs prior to 1989. Gorka rejected Medgyessy's claims of having not spied on people when he was a secret policeman. Gorka failed to obtain the necessary security clearance from the Constitution Protection Office to serve on the committee, apparently because he was widely regarded as a spy working for British counterintelligence. Gorka defended himself against the charge by saying his service in the British army was merely as a uniformed member of its counterterrorist unit, tasked with assessing threats from groups such as the IRA.
In 2004, Gorka became an adjunct to the faculty of the new US initiative for the Program for Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS), a Defense Department-funded program based in the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. At the same time Gorka became an adjunct to USSOCOM's Joint Special Operations University, MacDill Air Force Base. He and his family relocated to the United States in 2008. He was hired as administrative dean at the National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington D.C. Two years later, he began to lecture part-time for the ASD(SOLIC)-funded Masters Program in Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism as part of the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program but remained in a largely administrative role. Between 2009 and 2011 Gorka wrote for the Hudson Institute of New York (now Gatestone Institute). Between 2011 and 2013, Gorka was an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. In 2014 Gorka assumed the privately endowed Major General Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University Foundation. From 2014 to 2016, Gorka was an editor for national security affairs for Breitbart News, where he worked for Steve Bannon. In August 2016, he joined The Institute of World Politics, a private institution, on a full-time basis as Professor of Strategy and Irregular Warfare and Vice President for National Security Support. He is on the advisory board of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA).
In January 2017, Gorka was appointed deputy assistant to the president in the Trump White House. He was a member of a White House team known as the Strategic Initiatives Group, which was set up by Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. The Strategic Initiatives Group never got off the ground, and Gorka failed to obtain the security clearance necessary for work on national security issues. Questions were raised as to what the precise roles and duties of Gorka were within the Trump administration.
In April 2017, The Washington Examiner reported that Gorka was planning to leave his role at the White House; however, in May 2017 The Daily Beast reported that Trump and Steve Bannon had asked him to remain.
On August 25, 2017, Gorka's White House tenure ended, one week after Bannon's departure. The White House confirmed he was no longer employed there and disputed his claim that he resigned. Several published reports confirmed that White House security had been advised not to admit him to the White House grounds.
Shortly after taking a position in the Trump administration in early 2017, Gorka drew criticism from multiple commentators in academia and politics, who characterized him as a fringe figure in academic and policy-making circles. Business Insider politics editor Pamela Engel has described Gorka as being "widely disdained within his own field."
A number of academics and policymakers questioned Gorka's knowledge of foreign policy issues, his academic credentials and his professional behavior. Andrew Reynolds, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, questioned the validity of Gorka's doctoral degree, noting discrepancies between how doctorates are normally awarded and how Gorka's was awarded. Reynolds said that the evaluations of each referee on Gorka's PhD committee was "a page of generalized comments – completely at odds with the detailed substantive and methodological evaluations that I've seen at every Ph.D defence I've been on over the last twenty years." According to Reynolds, no less than two of the three referees only had Bachelor of Arts degrees, and one of the referees had published with Gorka previously, in violation of the academic expectation that reviewers have no personal or other form of interest in the success of a candidate's thesis. Georgetown University associate professor Daniel Nexon reviewed Gorka's PhD thesis, describing it as "inept" and saying "It does not deploy evidence that would satisfy the most basic methodological requirements for a PhD in the US".
The journal Terrorism and Political Violence had never used Gorka as a reviewer because, according to the associate editor, he "is not considered a terrorism expert by the academic or policy community.” In August 2017, Gorka falsely asserted that the Obama administration "invented" the term "lone-wolf terrorism", when in fact the term had been widely used in the academic literature, media and by governments long before Barack Obama took office. Responding to his academic critics, Gorka said that there was an ongoing "proxy war" and that others were attacking him as a way to attack President Trump.
In February 2017, Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, voiced his reservations about Gorka influencing policy in the White House, saying: "Gorka does not have much of a reputation in serious academic or policymaking circles. He has never published any scholarship of significance and his views on Islam and US national security are extreme even by Washington standards. His only real 'qualification' was his prior association with Breitbart News, which would be a demerit in any other administration."
According to BuzzFeed, Gorka was unable to obtain a security clearance to work in the Hungarian Parliament.
Gorka's view on Islam and radicalization have drawn controversy. Gorka sees Islamic terrorism as essentially ideologically motivated and rooted in a totalitarian religious mindset. In his view, violence is a "fundamental" part of Islam, and he rejects other scholars' assessments that Islamic militancy stems primarily from poverty, poor governance, and war. He vigorously backed President Trump's two executive orders that temporarily banned entry to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and Trump's usage of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism."
According to Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe, "Most counterterrorism experts dismiss Gorka's ideas as a dangerous oversimplification that could alienate Muslim allies and boost support for terrorist groups ... Religious scholars are equally withering."
Additionally, according to Jaffe, Gorka’s views "signal a radical break" from the discourse "defined by the city's Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite" of the last 16 years. For Gorka, "the terrorism problem has nothing to do with repression, alienation, torture, tribalism, poverty, or America’s foreign policy blunders and a messy and complex Middle East", but is rooted in Islam and the "martial parts" of the Koran.
In February 2017, former State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin and former National Security Council Senior Director Steven Simon took issue with Gorka's claim that the Obama and George W. Bush administrations had failed to understand the importance of ideology and they gave examples of how government analysts "going back nearly 40 years ha[d] examined ideology's role in Islamic militancy." They argued that by rejecting the role of "poor governance, repression, poverty and war" and failing to realize that "religious doctrine is not their sole or even primary driver", Gorka subscribed to an Islamophobic approach of seeing "Islam as the problem, rather than the uses to which Islam has been put by violent extremists."
Others have noted additional nuance in Gorka's views about Islam. Freelance investigative journalist Richard Miniter attests that Gorka "has been emphatic that the enemy is not Islam" and that "there is an ideological war among Muslims, a small fraction of which side with al Qaeda and its ilk against the vast majority of Muslims, who are among the terrorists’ most numerous victims." Andrew C. McCarthy says "The notion that he is racist, 'Islamophobic' (as opposed to anti-jihadist), or uninformed is absurd." McCarthy, a columnist for the National Review, describes Gorka’s Defeating Jihad as a good "primer on the Islamic doctrinal and scholarly roots of jihadist terror," particularly "takfiri jihad" targeting fellow Muslims. Gorka believes that the jihadi threat is an ideological one that has to be addressed in manners similar to past totalitarian ideologies of the Cold War. According to him, it is crucial to empower Muslim allies, as this is a battle within Islam.
The Order of Vitéz was a Hungarian order of merit founded in 1920 to reward heroic soldiers. It entitled the bearer to the title vitéz, as well as a grant of land. The title was inheritable, passing from father to son. Like all such orders in Hungary, it was disbanded at the end of World War II.
The U.S. State Department lists this order among organizations having been "under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany" during World War II.
Since then a number of private associations have worked to restore the order. The most notable of these is the Historical Order of Vitéz. This Order granted Gorka's father, Paul Gorka, their title in 1979 in recognition of his resistance to the post-war Soviet occupation of Hungary.
Paul Gorka's memoir Budapest elárulva ("Budapest betrayed") identifies him on its cover as "v. Gorka Pál", where the "v" is an abbreviation for the title vitéz. Sebastian Gorka has adopted the title in this way in a number of his publications, notably his PhD thesis and his writings for the Gatestone Institute. He also used the title in his June 2011 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
In 2017 Gorka appeared on Fox News on the evening of the U.S. presidential inauguration wearing a badge, tunic, and ring of the Order of Vitéz. This has given rise to claims that Gorka himself is a Nazi sympathizer.
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman wrote in April 2017 that Gorka "has been accused of having links to far-right groups in Europe." Guardian newspaper staff have accused Gorka of supporting the genocide carried out by Nazi Germany due to his father's membership in the Hungarian Historical Order of Vitéz.
His father, Paul Gorka, was never a member of the original order and received a "Vitéz" (literally: "valiant") medal from Hungarian exiles "for his resistance to dictatorship" in 1979. Gorka himself stated that he wears this medal in remembrance of his father, who was awarded the decoration for his efforts to create an anti-communist, pro-democracy organization at the university he attended in Hungary. Robert Kerepeszki, Hungarian expert of the Order of Vitéz, has confirmed that there were ruptures in the organization of the Order of Vitéz on the question of Nazism during the war, many of them died fighting against Hungarian Nazis, and Gorka's medal had nothing to do with the war period, but was awarded "for his resistance to dictatorship." The tunic that Gorka wore was just a traditional Hungarian jacket, known as a bocskai.
People who have worked with Gorka have said that he is not anti-Semitic. In February 2017 Congressman and Israel Allies Caucus Co-Chair Trent Franks called Gorka "the staunchest friend of Israel and the Jewish people." The Forward's Nathan Guttman responded to Franks' remarks with a statement that co-chair Franks "did not offer any evidence to refute the reports on Gorka’s ties with the Hungarian groups" the Hungarian National Committee and the New Democratic Coalition—as well as former members of Jobbik.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute has said Gorka "is about as anti-Semitic as [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. That is, not at all." Tibor Navracsics, an EU commissioner, member of the Hungarian Fidesz political party and former colleague of Gorka, also defended Gorka, stating that Gorka "has spent his life battling fascists and anti-Semites of all sorts"
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon argue that the Forward's articles are partisan attacks with no merit. Sarah N. Stern, of the Endowment for Middle East Truth has called Gorka "a true friend to Israel and the Jewish people," adding, "It is folly to 'cry wolf' [about anti-Semitism] at a time like this, when there are already too many wolves in the fold." Peter Beinart, writing in the Forward, says the evidence does not support the magazine's charges of antisemitism.
On March 16, 2017, leaders of one of two successor organisations of the Vitézi Rend stated that Gorka was an official member of the Historical Vitézi Rend faction, to which he is said to have taken a lifelong oath of loyalty. Gorka denied the allegations. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the Interfaith Alliance have called for Gorka's resignation over his ties to Hungarian far-right groups. The Anti-Defamation League has asked Gorka to disavow the Hungarian National Committee and the New Democratic Coalition.
Democratic Senators Ben Cardin, Dick Durbin and Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security requesting that the DHS look into whether Gorka "illegally procured his citizenship" by omitting membership in Historical Vitézi Rend, which could have been grounds for keeping him out of the country.
March 17, 2017 Gorka issued a statement in which he denied that he is a sworn member of Hungarian Groups with Nazi past.
Statements of support for Gorka, which have challenged the description of him as an anti-semite all predated a 2017 story that connected him with another extreme far-right anti-Semitic group. In a 2007 video, Gorka declared his support for the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), a paramilitary group described by various sources as neo-fascist and anti-Semitic. Gorka said that "If we look at the Swiss or Israeli example, when it is about a country, that is small and doesn't have a massive military, then a system can be based on a territorial defense ... In America, the state supports them, giving old arms ... After the disturbances of Hungary, last Year, a need has risen, ... " to supplement the official military "because the country’s military is sick, and totally reflects the state of Hungarian society... This country cannot defend itself.” He also added, that “We support the establishment of the Hungarian Guard despite the personalities involved.” The Guard was formally banned in Hungary two years after Gorka left the country, in 2009, which decision was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, due to its racist activities.
Gorka was detained January 31, 2016 at the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. for attempting to board a plane with a 9mm handgun in his luggage. The gun was confiscated by Transportation Security Administration officers and Gorka, after being detained and issued with a criminal summons, was permitted to board his plane. Gorka said that he had packed the carry-on bag without remembering that it contained a gun. A judge dismissed the charge on February 3, 2017 since he had stayed out of legal trouble for six months, in an arrangement agreed with the prosecutor.
Gorka married Pennsylvania native Katharine Fairfax Cornell in 1996.
The couple founded the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security in Budapest, Hungary in 2003.
Katharine Gorka has also been involved with the administration of Donald Trump, first serving on his transition team for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She then became a policy advisor at DHS on April 7, 2017. In the wake of the deadly white-supremacist rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, her part at DHS, in defunding Life After Hate, a group which facilitates deradicalization, particularly of white supremacists, received attention.