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January 8, 2007

The House Non-Intelligence Committee


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was sworn in only a few days ago, but what may be the biggest blunder of her reign was committed even before the start of the 110th Congress. The chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee is an issue that has stood out in the news since the November elections, largely because Pelosi has managed to stumble on it not once, nor twice, but three times – and with severe consequences.


Congresswoman Jane Harman, who had ended the last Congress as the Democratic ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, fell out of favor with Pelosi when the latter noticed that Harman was not opposing President Bush on issues as strongly as the minority leader’s memos dictated. Thus, despite Harman’s relatively solid background in intelligence issues and international relations, and in disregard for the oh-so-beloved 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to give experienced members longer tenures on intelligence panels, Pelosi decided to skip over Harman for the position. Not so disastrous, one might say – until, of course, the alternative is exposed.


The next choice for the woman who has promised us an exceedingly ethical Congress was Alcee Hastings, an impeached judge who was removed from office for corruption and perjury. But after much criticism and the injection of a substantial dose of irony, Pelosi relented. Finally, she settled on Silvestre Reyes, a 10-year veteran of the House of Representatives who does not know which religion the 9/11 hijackers adhered to.


That’s right. Reyes was given a pop quiz that consisted of questions the easiness of which should insult any Congressman. The first question was… ready for this? Is Al-Qaeda made up of Sunnis or Shiites? “They have both,” Reyes replied, giving a politician’s measured, moderate reply to avoid sounding completely wrong. Then, in a fit of confidence, he went on, “predominantly – probably Shiite.”

It is quite incredible that at a time when America is fighting a global war that threatens its very survival, the man in charge of intelligence in the U.S. House of Representatives is unaware of the fact that one of Al-Qaeda’s eventual aims is to eliminate the existence of Shiites the way we want to eliminate Al-Qaeda. Five years ago, Osama Bin Laden sent 19 terrorists to kill 3,000 Americans, on behalf of a Sunni organization. One needn’t be head of the House Intelligence Committee to understand this fact, nor a Congressman. The only prerequisites to having such knowledge are a shallow interest in anything beyond MTV’s Real World and an IQ only moderately above that of a doorknob.

Al-Qaeda’s religious affiliation is not a negligible detail, not an inconsequential piece of trivia. It defines much of the global war on terror – from the Middle East, to the Philippines, Africa and even the cities of Europe and the United States. The Sunni-Shiite divide, in turn, is the fulcrum around which the immediate and long-term future of the Middle East will revolve. Ruptures between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon are already becoming apparent, while tensions between Iran and Sunni Arab countries are far from veiled.

The mere magnitude of the situation should suffice in demonstrating that any participation in policy decision-making on behalf of 300 million people, and in the interest of six billion, requires a far more than basic understanding of the vital relations with and within the Muslim world. Here, we don’t even have the basics. And that was question number one.

The second question was not much more difficult. “Hezbollah,” Reyes was asked, “what are they?” The House Intelligence Committee chairman eloquently articulated a response: “Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah… Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?” Reyes could not even say “what” Hezbollah is. Not even its Shiite affiliation or its location in Lebanon – never mind its activities and funding from Iran and Syria. Its identification as a destabilizing armed force in Lebanon was too much to expect.

Well, they’re watching this. They’re all watching it, and closely. Al-Qaeda, the Sunnis, the Shiites, Hezbollah, the Iraqi people, the Iranian Mullahs. Heck, the world. They’re watching the United States put in a powerful intelligence position a person with no comprehension of the identity of either America’s major terrorist enemy or one of the Middle East’s principal militias. How disheartening it is to our friends the Iraqis, the Lebanese and democratic forces around the Arab world. And how emboldening it must be to our enemies.

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