Via Hilzoy: Guess who said the following:
On “a temporary basis, I’m willing to ramp [US troop levels in Iraq] up by twenty or thirty thousand . . . for, I don’t know, two months, four months, six months — but certainly that would be an exception,”
No, not John McCain; new Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chair Silvestre Reyes. Alas, Reyes shares other negative traits with the US political and security establishment:
Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.
We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism’s major players.
To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?
The dialogue went like this:
Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?
“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”
“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.
That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.
Wait – it gets better:
And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?
“Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah…”
He laughed again, shifting in his seat.
“Why do you ask me these questions at five o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?”
“Pocito,” I said—a little.
“Pocito?! “ He laughed again.
“Go ahead,” I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.
Reyes: “Well, I, uh….”
I apologized for putting him “on the spot a little.” But I reminded him that the people who have killed thousands of Americans on U.S. soil and in the Middle East have been front page news for a long time now.
It’s been 23 years since a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed over 200 U.S. military personnel in Beirut, mostly Marines.
Hezbollah, a creature of Iran, is close to taking over in Lebanon. Reports say they are helping train Iraqi Shiites to kill Sunnis in the spiralling civil war.
“Yeah,” Reyes said, rightly observing, “but . . . it’s not like the Hatfields and the McCoys. It’s a heck of a lot more complex.
Reyes is not alone. Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly has been investigating for some time now the dangerous lack of expertise displayed by US security and intelligence officials when it comes to the Middle East, terrorism and Islam. An article of his published this past October by the New York Times is startling. Many officials can’t even explain the difference between Shiite and Sunni, let alone which sect controls a specific ‘terrorist’ group (which, as Stein points out, is like British security officials being unable to distinguish between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland):
My curiosity about our policymakers’ grasp of Islam’s two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau’s counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn’t as important as being a good manager.
A few months later, I asked the F.B.I.’s spokesman, John Miller, about Mr. Bald’s comments. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” Mr. Miller told me. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”
Of course, I hadn’t asked about reading Urdu or Mr. bin Laden’s writings.
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.”
Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”
AND to his credit, Mr. Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about Al Qaeda while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam’s Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some members of Congress.
Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.
“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.
Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”
With idiots like this responsible for keeping the American ‘Homeland’ safe, it’s a wonder there HASN’T been a sequel to 9/11 yet.
Last word goes to Trent Lott (who recently returned to the House Republican leadership as Minority Whip):
“It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people.”
“Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion?” wondered Lott, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a meeting with Bush.
“Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference?
“They all look the same to me,” Lott said.
I’m sure they do, Trent.