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By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor
Posted Dec. 8, 2006
Forty years ago, Sgt. Silvestre Reyes was a helicopter crew chief flying dangerous combat missions in South Vietnam from the top of a soaring rocky outcrop near the sea called Marble Mountain.
After the war, it turned out that the communist Viet Cong had tunneled into the hill and built a combat hospital right beneath the skids of Reyes' UH-1 Huey gunship.
Now the five-term Texas Democrat, 62, is facing similar unpleasant surprises about the enemy, this time as the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
That's because, like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.
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?
To his credit, Reyes, a kindly, thoughtful man who also sits on the Armed Service Committee, does see the undertows drawing the region into chaos.
For example, he knows that the 1,400- year-old split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites not only fuels the militias and death squads in Iraq, it drives the competition for supremacy across the Middle East between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
That's more than two key Republicans on the Intelligence Committee knew when I interviewed them last summer. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., both back for another term, were flummoxed by such basic questions, as were several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI.
I thought it only right now to pose the same questions to a Democrat, especially one who will take charge of the Intelligence panel come January. The former border patrol agent also sits on the Armed Services Committee.
Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.
We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.
To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?
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.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they'd slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.
That's because the extremist Sunnis who make up a l Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.
Al Qaeda's Sunni roots account for its very existence. Osama bin Laden and his followers believe the Saudi Royal family besmirched the true faith through their corruption and alliance with the United States, particularly allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil.
It's been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center.
Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?
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?"
"Poquito," I said-a little.
"Poquito?! " He laughed again.
"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.
Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."
I apologized for putting him "on the spot a little." But I reminded him that the people who have killed thousands of Americans on U.S. soil and in the Middle East have been front page news for a long time now.
It's been 23 years since a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed over 200 U.S. military personnel in Beirut, mostly Marines.
Hezbollah, a creature of Iran, is close to taking over in Lebanon. Reports say they are helping train Iraqi Shiites to kill Sunnis in the spiralling civil war.
"Yeah," Reyes said, rightly observing, "but . . . it's not like the Hatfields and the McCoys. It's a heck of a lot more complex.
"And I agree with you - we ought to expend some effort into understanding them. But speaking only for myself, it's hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories."
Reyes is not alone.
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?
Trent Lott, the veteran Republican senator from Mississippi, said only last September that "It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with these people."
"Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion?" wondered Lott, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a meeting with Bush.
"Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference?
"They all look the same to me," Lott said.
The administration's disinterest in the Arab world has rattled down the chain of command.
Only six people in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are fluent in Arabic, according to last week's report of the Iraq Study Group. Only about two dozen of the embassy's thousand employees have some familiarity with the language, the report said.
The Iraq Study Group was amazed to find that, despite spending $2 billion on Iraq in 2006, more wasn't being done to try "to understand the people who fabricate, plant and explode roadside bombs."
Rare is the military unit with an American soldier who can read a captured document or interrogate a prisoner, my own sources tell me.
It was that way in Vietnam, too, Reyes says, which "haunts us."
"If you substitute Arabization for Vietnamization, if you substitute . . . our guys going in and taking over a place then leaving it and the bad guys come back in. . . ."
He trails off, despairing.
"I could draw many more analogies."
Yet Reyes says he favors sending more troops there.
"If it's going to target the militias and eliminate them, I think that's a worthwhile investment," he said.
It's hard to find anybody in Iraq who thinks the U.S. can do that.
On "a temporary basis, I'm willing to ramp them up by twenty or thirty thousand . . . for, I don't know, two months, four months, six months - but certainly that would be an exception," Reyes said.
Meanwhile, the killing is going on below decks, too, within Sunni and Shiite groups and factions.
Anybody who pays serious attention to Iraq knows that.
Reyes says his first hearings come January will focus on how U.S. intelligence can do a better job helping the troops in Iraq.
It may be way too late for that.
"Stop giving me tests!" Reyes exclaimed, half kidding.
"I'm not going to talk to you any more!"