New Intelligence Chairman Clueless on Terrorism

CQ National Security Editor Jeff Stein interviews incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes on his views about major terrorist groups. It turns out he has no clue whether al Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite and has apparently never heard of Hezbollah.

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.


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….”

Stein muses, “It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don’t know basics about the battlefield?” A fair question, methinks.

What’s so stunning, though, is not Reyes’ cluelessness but how pervasive it is among people who are charged with overseeing counter-terrorism policy. I don’t expect people at the supervisory level, who are generalists, to fully understand the deep history of the Sunni-Shiite split, let alone to speak Arabic. Still, you can’t supervise without a basic understanding of who’s who in the region and where the fault lines are drawn.

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey believes “The Democrats should seriously reconsider Harman’s expulsion. With the nation at war, we need people of expertise in these positions.” Of course, we don’t know how Harmon would do on this quiz, either.

Bill Faith‘s headline, “Intelligence? Un pocito” is amusing, if unfair.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Intelligence, Terrorism, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. davod says:

    You are, perhaps, assuming to much of Harman.

    I know very little of Harman. Nothing you wrote indicates to me that Harman has more knowledge on the subject than Reyes.

  2. Don McArthur says:

    I would note that it appears that both you and Glen Reynolds chose to selectively quote from this article in such a way as to insure an anti-Democratic Party conclusion on the part of your readers. Or perhaps you simply didn’t read this portion:

    “…The best argument for needing to understand who’s what in the Middle East is probably the mistaken invasion itself, despite the preponderance of expert opinion that it was a terrible idea — including that of Bush’s father and his advisers. On the day in 2003 when Iraqi mobs toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Bush was said to be unaware of the possibility that a Sunni-Shia civil war could fill the power vacuum, according to a reliable source with good White House connections.

    If President Bush and some of his closest associates, not to mention top counterterrorism officials, have demonstrated their own ignorance about who the players are in the Middle East, why should we expect the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee to get it right?…”

    Fair and balanced coverage from the echo chamber?

  3. Tano says:

    What is it about Texans and utter cluelessness about the wider world?

  4. Jim Henley says:

    What is this business about Harman being “expelled?” Are there set term limits for Intel committee members or not? Everything I read indicates that there are, and that Harman’s term was up.

  5. Jose Chung says:

    I want to praise Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership for bringing us backward to a time of peace and prosperity in America where terrorism was squeezed into little boxes of type called news briefs and a sitting president had the leisure to talk “pussy” on the golf course with Vernon Jordan while ordering the Secret Service to bug Diana’s phone in hopes of discovering what she thought of him.

  6. Don makes a point: there is plenty in that piece to embarrass members of both parties and of both the legislative and executive branches of government. The whole situation is depressing.

    And, on a more frivolous note, pocito isn’t the right spelling of poquito (as I note here).

  7. James Joyner says:

    Don: I’m quoting from the part of the story that is news. Problems with Bush, senior FBI officials, and others mentioned in the story are months old and have been discussed here previously.

    I allude the that with “What’s so stunning, though, is not Reyes’ cluelessness but how pervasive it is among people who are charged with overseeing counter-terrorism policy.”

  8. jpe says:

    That’s pathetic. The religious affiliation of terrorist groups is very, very basic.

  9. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Reyes merely reflects the general ignorance of most Americans about the various threats to our security, and terrorism in particular. It’s a shame but in the past 40 years or so, America, which was once the land of the free & home of the brave, has become the land of the fat, lazy and stupid.

  10. Jack says:

    Wow, that is very scary to think he might be head of the Intel committee. He should resign from the committee ASAP. That is not only embarrassing to him, but to our country. I can’t believe he has been on the committee in the first place.