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12/13/2006 05:07 PM
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US intelligence chief fails fundamental quiz

The Australian
Tom Baldwin, Washington
December 14, 2006

[link to www.theaustralian.news.com.au]

HE is expected to have a deep understanding of terrorist groups and their threats to the US.

But the incoming chairman of a US congressional intelligence committee was struggling yesterday to explain his ignorance of al-Qa'ida and Hezbollah.

Silvestre Reyes, the Democrat chosen to head the House of Representatives committee, was asked whether members of al-Qa'ida came from the Sunni or Shia branch of Islam.

"Al-Qa'ida, they have both," he answered, adding: "Predominantly probably Shi'ite."

In fact, al-Qa'ida was founded by Osama bin Laden as a Sunni organisation, and views the Shia Muslims as heretics.

And Sunnis dominate the militias and death squads in Iraq.

A reporter for Congressional Quarterly, Jeff Stein, then put a similar question about Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group.

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah," replied Mr Reyes.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?" he said. "Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

Go ahead, said Mr Stein.

"Well, I, uh ...," said the congressman.

His apparent ignorance of the basic facts raised fresh questions over his suitability for the key intelligence post - as well as the judgment of Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, who picked him for the job.

She has already been criticised for trying to oust her deputy, Steny Hoyer, in a poll among Democrat congressmen after the mid-term elections.

There was further controversy over her choice of Mr Reyes in preference to Jane Harman, who was the committee's most senior Democrat but was said to have upset Ms Pelosi.

When appointed, Mr Reyes said he had "very strong credentials" for the job - "credentials that could stand up to anybody".

He said in a statement yesterday: "The CQ interview covered a wide range of topics other than the selected points published inthe story.

"As a member of the intelligence committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al-Qa'ida's desire to harm Americans. The committee will keep itseye on the ball, and focus onthe pressing security and intelligence issues."

Earlier this year, Mr Stein flummoxed two Republicans on the committee, Jo Ann Davis and Terry Everett, with similar questions about the differences between Sunni and Shia. "One's in one location, another's in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don't know," replied Mr Everett.

Stein has also caught out Willie Hulon, chief of the FBI's new national security branch, when he asked him to which branch of Islam did Iran and Hezbollah belonged.

"Sunni," Mr Hulon replied.

"Wrong," said Mr Stein, who has defended his use of such questions. "To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland - who's on what side? It's been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre. Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?"

But Trent Lott, the No2 in the Republican Senate leadership, said recently: "It's hard for Americans, all of us, to understand what's wrong with these people ... They all look the same to me."

The report from the Iraq Study Group expressed amazement that more was not being done to "understand the people who explode roadside bombs".

Only six people in the US embassy in Baghdad are fluent in Arabic, and only about two dozen of its 1000 employees have some familiarity with the language.
One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards
George W. Bush, 11 October 2006

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