After the Democrats take control of the U.S. Congress in January, Rep. Silvestre Reyes will be the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressional Quarterly recently asked Reyes some basic foreign policy questions:
Is al Qaeda a Sunni organization, or Shi'ite?
The question proved nettlesome for Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, incoming Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"Predominantly -- probably Shi'ite," he said in a recent interview with Congressional Quarterly, a periodical that covers political and legislative issues in Congress.
Unfortunately for Reyes, the al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden is comprehensively Sunni and subscribes to a form of Sunni Islam known for not tolerating theological deviation. ...
But Reyes' problems in the interview didn't end with al Qaeda.
Asked to describe the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Congressional Quarterly said Reyes responded: "Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah," and then said, "Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?"
It doesn't matter what political party Reyes belongs to. This kind of ignorance is horrifying.
But the truth is, if you put most members of Congress on the spot, they probably couldn't correctly answer those questions, either.
In fact, this reminds me of an op-ed article by Jeff Stein that ran in the New York Times in October. Stein spent months asking U.S. counterterrorism officials, "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" According to Stein, "most American officials I've interviewed don't have a clue."
That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics? ...
A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.'s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau's new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. ''Yes, sure, it's right to know the difference,'' he said. ''It's important to know who your targets are.''
That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. ''The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,'' he said. ''And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.''
O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran -- Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. ''Iran and Hezbollah,'' I prompted. ''Which are they?''
He took a stab: ''Sunni.''
If we're really fighting a war, how can we afford not to know who we are fighting?