Senior Officials Can’t Tell Sunni From Shiite

Senior officials in charge of U.S. counterterrorism policy have no clue about the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

So, who are these people? Willie Hulon, chief of the FBI’s national security branch. Rep. Terry Everett, vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, chairman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counter-Intelligence.

Those are the only three cases that CQ national security editor Jeff Stein mentions in his NYT op-ed. Presumably, there are others in that boat–including many on the other side of the aisle. Still, it’s rather sad. He wasn’t even asking detailed questions about the philosophical divide between the sects but merely associating the correct one with the Iranians and al Qaeda.

Al Jackson confessed to not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran shortly after the 9/11 attacks. But, then, he’s a country singer trying to project an aw shucks image. And I suspect he’s got it figured out by now, anyway. You’d think key committee chairmen and agency heads would, too.

UPDATE: This reminds me of the claim, rehashed a couple months ago, that President Bush didn’t understand the Sunni-Shia difference at the time he launched the war in Iraq. That was at least quite probably wrong. There’s not much doubt about this one.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Intelligence, Iraq War, National Security, 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. DC Loser says:

    Rule of thumb when briefing or writing for members of Congress – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

  2. anjin-san says:

    As in Vietnam, we have blundered into a war involving a culture that we do not understand. As in Vietnam, we have a great deal of trouble telling friend from foe. As in Vietnam, there is really no such thing as a secure zone, attacks may take place anywhere. As in Vietnam….

    Don’t think I will go on, too depressing.

    Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to relive it. Wise words. But sadly, they were not heeded in the Bush White House.

  3. Triumph says:

    Bush’s top National Security Aide working solely on Afghanistan doesn’t know about the Durand Line, for crissakes!

    The ignorance of basic facts in these cases could be an explanation for the failure of his policies.

    That or his idiotic statements about making policy by looking into peoples souls and looking at body language.

    The guy is operating so incompetently that people are trying to figure out what in the hell is going on.

  4. JJ says:

    This reminds me of the claim, rehashed a couple of months ago, that President Bush didn’t understand the Sunni-Shia difference at the time he launched the war in Iraq. That was at least quite probably wrong.

    And you base this assessment on what? What exactly has convinced you that the President has ever understood anything at all when it comes to Iraq?

  5. Anderson says:

    That was at least quite probably wrong.


    The discussion here at OTB certainly showed no such thing.

    Rather, if people who aren’t well known to be intellectually challenged (oops, “incurious”) also have trouble — against all expectation — then all the more likely that Bush does.

  6. Anderson says:

    Looking back, the OTB post on Bush had to do w/ whether Bush even *knew* there were two kinds of Muslim, Sunni and Shiite.

    Stein’s questions went to whether one was able to use the terms meaningfully, which I’m with Wittgenstein in saying is the same as having any understanding of them.

    The evidence was far from clear that Bush even knew there were Sunnis and Shiites, and it’s a good bet that at the time, he sure as hell didn’t know the difference. By now, hopefully, he’s figured it out.