What they don’t know is frightening

How alarmed should Americans be upon learning that one of the nation’s highest-ranking FBI counterterrorism policy-makers and two members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, among numerous other unnamed officials, possess shallow knowledge about terrorist groups that have slaughtered Americans in the past, are killing our soldiers in the war on terror today and threaten to obliterate us in the future?

In a recent op-ed essay in the New York Times, Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, revealed how ignorant these people are. Wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials, Mr. Stein would ask, “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite?” He wasn’t seeking theological explanations, “just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?”

Recently appointed as the executive assistant director of the National Security Branch of the FBI, Willie Hulon previously served as deputy assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, when he testified July 13, 2004, before Congress about how important it was to develop “our knowledge and expertise about foreign cultures and our terrorist adversaries overseas.” Mr. Hulon appeared stumped when he was asked: Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shi’ite? “Iran and Hezbollah,” Mr. Stein prompted. “Which are they?” Mr. Hulon guessed Sunni. Wrong.

“The FBI believes the Lebanese-based Hezbollah,” which blew up the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 Marines, “has terrorist cells in at least 10 U.S. cities,” Bill Gertz, national security reporter for The Washington Times, revealed in his latest book, “Enemies.” John Miller, the FBI’s assistant director for public affairs, told Mr. Gertz that the FBI is concerned that Iran could activate a network of Hezbollah terrorists in the United States if the international community takes action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Given that Sunnis and Shi’ites are massacring each other throughout Baghdad and across Iraq in sectarian strife bordering on civil war, one would think that seven-term Alabama Republican Rep. Terry Everett, who serves as vice chairman of the subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, would be on top of it. To Mr. Stein’s basic question, Mr. Everett replied, “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know” the difference. Three-term Virginia Republican Rep. Jo Ann Davis, who chairs the subcommittee on Terrorism/HUMINT, Analysis and Counterintelligence, which oversees the CIA’s performance in its recruitment of Islamic spies, told Mr. Stein: “It’s a difference in their fundamental beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.” Asked which branch al Qaeda’s leaders follow, she reasoned as follows: “Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni. I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”

You could not make this stuff up. Given their governmental responsibilities, the ingrained incuriosity of these officials is as appalling as it is frightening.

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