Reporter's Questions About Islam Put Intelligence Chair on the Spot

Pop quiz.

Quick. Without thinking or Googling, who are the senators from Wyoming? The Chinese president? What are the two main sects of Islam? Al Qaeda members follow which sect?

Pretty hard, huh?

A reporter recently directed the questions about Islam to Texas Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

Reyes failed, which would perhaps not be a big deal if Reyes were an ordinary congressman.

But he's not.

Come January, Reyes will chair the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees all U.S. intelligence activity, a good portion of which is directed toward the war on terror.

Reyes could not tell Congressional Quarterly's national security editor Jeff Stein whether al Qaeda was made up of Sunnis or Shiites.

From Stein's scathing column on the exchange:

"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."

-- Congressional Quarterly

Reyes was wrong despite having a 50-50 chance of success.

"Issues like al Qaeda and the Middle East deserve serious discussion and consideration," Reyes said in a statement after the column was posted on CQ's Web site.

"The CQ interview covered a wide range of topics other than the selected points published in the story. As a Member of the Intelligence Committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al Qaeda's desire to harm Americans. The Intelligence Committee will keep its eye on the ball, and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us."

For his part, Stein realizes maybe even he could not pass a detailed quiz on Islam.

"I don't pretend to be an expert on this stuff, either," Stein said to ABC. "That's the irony of this thing. But I cover intelligence, so I have to have a functional knowledge of Islam."

Stein said he kept the quiz easy for Reyes. "I didn't even go to the tough questions. Like what is Wahabism?"

Reyes is not the only congressman on the intelligence committee who has trouble with these basic questions about Islam.

Republicans Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., also failed this test, and Stein wrote about them in a previous column.

Stein has made a cottage industry of asking these questions of lawmakers from both parties and FBI counterterrorism officials.

He has received the same blank stares that Jay Leno gets when he stops people on the street and asks them to name the first American president.

That's a comedy show, though. This is Congress.

Stein cedes that not all Congress members have failed the quiz.

"Some of the people I've asked these questions have known them," Stein said. "Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, knew it very well. [Rep.] Jane Harman, too. She kind of rolled her eyes and said, 'Where do you want me to start? Fourteen-hundred years ago there was a split in Islam.' … And I said, 'OK, you know."

It should be noted that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bumped Harman, D-Calif., out of her position as the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee in favor of Reyes.

In case you, like Reyes, were not aware, Shiite and Sunni are the two main branches of Islam.

The differences between these two are at the heart of what people in the news business are calling "sectarian strife" and "civil war" in Iraq.

"Shiites, who account for some 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's Muslims, split off from the mainstream of Islamic practice because of a disagreement about who was rightfully qualified to lead the Muslim community," says the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in a background paper on the subject posted on its Web site.

"Shiites believe Islam's leader should be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnis say leaders should be chosen through ijma, or consensus. Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, who was killed while serving as the top leader, or Caliph, of Islam in the 7th century. His tomb is in Najaf, Iraq's holiest Shiite city."

On-the-spot, off-the-cuff questions from reporters have long been a thorn in the side of politicians.

President Bush was famously quizzed by a TV reporter in Boston in November 1999 about the names of world leaders. He went one for four.

Since then he has gotten some on-the-job training.

One of the world leaders Bush was unable to name was General Pervez Musharraf, who at that time had recently taken control of Pakistan in a military coup. Today Musharraf is a major ally of Bush's in the war on terror.

Previous House Intelligence Committee chairmen have had a history, too, of putting their feet in their mouths.

Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 1997 until 2005, when he resigned to be nominated by Bush as CIA director.

Goss had been a CIA agent in the 1960s and 1970s, but told liberal filmmaker Michael Moore long before his nomination to head the agency, that he would not now be qualified even to become an agent.

"It is true I was in CIA from approximately the late '50s to approximately the early '70s," Goss said to Moore.

"And it's true I was a case officer, clandestine services office, and yes I do understand the core mission of the business. I couldn't get a job with CIA today. I am not qualified. I don't have the language skills. I, you know, my language skills were romance languages and stuff. We're looking for Arabists today. I don't have the cultural background probably. And I certainly don't have the technical skills, uh, as my children remind me every day, 'Dad, you got to get better on your computer.' Uh, so, the things that you need to have, I don't have."Goss had been a CIA agent in the 1960s and 1970s, but told liberal filmmaker Michael Moore long before his nomination to head the agency, that would not now be qualified even to become an agent.

Moore conveniently released the interview, which had been stripped from his movie "Fahrenheit 911," before Goss' confirmation hearings.

Quiz Answers: The senators from Wyoming are Republicans Mike Enzi and Craig Thomas, and the Chinese president is Hu Jintao.