Of all the things on the to-do list before the Democrats take control of Congress next month, one item seemed to have escaped the attention of Congressman Silvestro Reyes: read something about the Middle East.Feel safer now?
Mr Reyes, a Democrat from Texas, was chosen by party speaker Nancy Pelosi to chair the house intelligence committee, charged with the oversight of the CIA and other agencies.
So there was much chagrin when the congressman was unable to answer even the most rudimentary questions about militant Islamist organisations such as "Who is in al-Qaida", and "What is Hizbullah"?
Mr Reyes's lack of expertise was exposed by a columnist for the Congressional Quarterly, a political magazine. During an interview last week, the columnist, Jeff Stein, set Mr Reyes a quiz on the modern Middle East.
The congressman stumbled when asked whether al-Qaida was predominantly a Shia or a Sunni organisation.
Mr Reyes guessed that the followers of the Saudi fugitive, Osama bin Laden, were primarily Shia.
In fact, al-Qaida is an extremist Sunni organisation, and many of its followers see Shia as heretics.
"He couldn't have been more wrong," wrote Stein. "It's been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre. Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?"
By the time Stein got around to the subject of Hizbullah, the Shia militant group in Lebanon, Mr Reyes was feeling testy.
"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?" he said.
If it's any comfort for the congressman, he is not alone.
Stein said two Republican committee members were "flummoxed" by such basic questions on Islam and the Middle East, and as the Iraq Study Group reported last week, only six people at the US embassy in Baghdad are fluent in Arabic.
December 13, 2006
Al Qaida? Who's he?
See this in today's Guardian.