CQ’s Jeff Stein has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that makes me cringe. In it, he cites recent interviews with senior officials at the FBI and members of Congress with key oversight roles, in which he poses the following question to them: what’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims? From the piece:
A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.â€™s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureauâ€™s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. â€œYes, sure, itâ€™s right to know the difference,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s important to know who your targets are.â€
That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. â€œThe basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,â€ he said. â€œAnd the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.â€
O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran â€” Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. â€œIran and Hezbollah,â€ I prompted. â€œWhich are they?â€
He took a stab: â€œSunni.â€
Al Qaeda? â€œSunni.â€
Yet another data point that suggests that the FBI is incapable of leading the nation’s domestic intelligence activities, and that we need a new, independent MI5-type organization.
And the members of Congress who Stein queried didn’t fare much better:
Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.
â€œDo you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?â€ I asked him a few weeks ago.
Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: â€œOneâ€™s in one location, anotherâ€™s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I donâ€™t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.â€
One might argue that this was an unfair ‘gotcha’ question. But even if it is, what it reveals is entirely valid, and it’s a disturbing indication about our attitude as a nation and our moral seriousness in addressing the critical challenges in the war on terror. We need to fight against the anti-intellectual strain within our political class today, and fight back against the all-too-frequent efforts to belittle or degrade regional experts. If we ignore or laugh away these trends, then we’re compromising our ability to successfully face up to the threats that we face today.