Official ignorance allows our enemy to hide in plain site

By Douglas J. Hagmann, Director, Northeast Intelligence Network

12 December 2006: National Security Editor Jeff Stein of the Congressional Quarterly interviewed Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas, who is expected to be the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee when the Democrats take charge in January. Reyes, who is incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “pick of the litter” for the head position, was unable to answer the most basic questions about the enemies of the United States when posed by Stein. The interview appeared on the web site of Congressional Quarterly last Friday.

Editor Stein asked Reyes about al Qaeda, specifically to which branch of Islam al Qaeda is associated” Sunni or Shi’ite. Reyes answered “they are probably both,” followed by “predominantly — probably Shi’ite.” Representative Reyes was wrong - dead wrong in his answer. The terror organization al Qaeda, founded by Osama bin Laden, is a strict Sunni organization whose members view Shi’ites as heretics. Reyes was also unable to provide information about Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terrorist group based in Southern Lebanon and designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.

Interviewed by CNN, the CQ editor expressed amazement of Reyes’ lack of what he considers basic information about two of the major and most visible terrorist organizations. Representative Reyes is not the only lawmaker who has shown ignorance about sworn enemies of the United States. According to Mr. Stein in an editorial published in the New York Times on October 17, 2006, he wrote that “most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue” about the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. He added: “That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies.”

Reyes is, of course, not alone in his lack of knowledge of our enemies. In a March, 2005 deposition, Gary Bald, the former executive assistant director for the National Security Branch of the FBI (Bald retied in 2006), was asked if a strong background in international terrorism is essential for someone to be selected for a counterterrorism position. Bald did not think such knowledge was overly important: “You don’t need subject-matter expertise. The subject-matter expertise is helpful, but it is not a prerequisite. It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.”

And my personal favorite is the December 8, 2004 deposition of Dale Watson, the first assistant director in charge of counterterrorism (and then executive assistant director until his retirement in 2002) The following is a transcription of the exchange between a deposing attorney and Mr. Watson:

Question: And in terms of knowledge of Middle East culture … I’m just talking about knowledge that you get, say, from more than one college course on the Middle East, you know, if you went to college and took an undergraduate course on Islam or you took an undergraduate course on, you know, Middle East affairs or something like that. Beyond say just one undergraduate or university course. Do you think that level of knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and history would be something that would be helpful for someone at a GS-15 or above level in the counterterrorism division of the FBI?

WATSON: Yes, I guess it would be somewhat helpful.

Question: Why?

WATSON: Just being able to understand, you know, probably the targets of the folks that came out of the 9/11 deal. It certainly would not have aided in any criminal investigations. A crime is a crime.

Question: What do you mean by that, a crime is a crime?

WATSON:Crime’s committed in the United States. It really - you know, I don’t think it’s much benefit if you understand about the Ku Klux Klan - I don’t necessarily think you have to know everything about the Ku Klux Klan to investigate a church bombing or a church fire that they conducted because the subjects are subjects. And so, that - that sort of approach.

Question: So in terms of being a better supervisor, do you think that type of knowledge was important for post-9/11?

WATSON: I think it would be helpful to a limited degree.

Question: What steps did the FBI take after 9/11 to ensure that managers at the GS-15 or above level hired into counterterrorism had a background in experience and knowledge of Middle Eastern culture?

WATSON: None that I’m aware of.

Question:Do you know who Osama bin Laden’s spiritual leader was?

WATSON: Can’t recall.

Question: And do you know the differences in the religion between Shiite and Sunni Muslims?

WATSON: Not technically, no.

Lack of knowledge of our enemy is not a political matter - deadly ignorance is plentiful in all aspects of the political spectrum and in the highest positions of our intelligence agencies. This, in turn, provides our enemies numerous opportunities to further obfuscate the truth about themselves and, as they have done for the last few decades, hide in plain sight in our own country. After all, most people, including those charged with our security, would not be able to tell the difference.