A fateful letter to the editor of the Times

Getting to know Tom Cotton has been one of the highest (and most humbling) of the highlights of my experience writing for Power Line. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger headed down to southern Arkansas to watch Tom campaign for Arkansas’ Fourth District congressional seat. Yesterday NRO posted part I of Jay’s report. In part II today, Jay tells how we first got to know Tom, while he was serving as an Army lieutenant leading patrols of some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq:

In the summer of 2006, an unusual episode occurred: He wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. The letter, though not published in the Times, got attention.

Here’s what happened: Soldiers were afforded some Internet time, between long patrols. Cotton used his to catch up on the news. He discovered that the New York Times had published yet more national-security secrets, this time exposing an operation to track terrorist financing. It had been a particularly rough period for Cotton, at war, and he fired off “what may have been an intemperate letter,” as he says.

The letter:

Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23). I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq. . . .

Unfortunately, as I supervised my soldiers late one night, I heard a booming explosion several miles away. I learned a few hours later that a powerful roadside bomb killed one soldier and severely injured another from my 130-man company. I deeply hope that we can find and kill or capture the terrorists responsible for that bomb. But, of course, these terrorists do not spring from the soil like Plato’s guardians. No, they require financing . . . As your story states, the program was legal, briefed to Congress, supported in the government and financial industry, and very successful.

Not anymore. You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here. Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.

And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others — laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.

When Cotton sent this letter to the Times, he also copied Power Line, the conservative blog. The Times didn’t publish the letter, but Power Line did — and it shot around the Internet.

Meanwhile, Cotton was back on patrol. Another four-day patrol. When he returned to base, a private ran up to him and said, “Sir, you’ve got to go see the commander now. He is pissed.” Cotton had no idea what he had done. Nothing unusual had happened out on patrol.

The commander said, “Did you write a letter to the New York Times about some intelligence program?” Ah. “The brigade commander has seen it and he’s not happy. The battalion commander is supposed to chew you out. I think everything will be all right, but be ready for it.”

This was the company commander speaking. Above him was the battalion commander, and then the brigade commander.

Says Cotton, “I was nervous and worried all night long, because here I was in Iraq, leading a platoon, going out every day on patrol, as I had dreamed of doing for so long, and I didn’t know what would happen. Would I be chewed out, pure and simple? Or would I be fired from my job or court-martialed?”

There was then something of an intercession: Pete Schoomaker had seen Cotton’s letter. He was Army chief of staff. He sent around the letter by e-mail, to all his generals. “Attached for your information are words of wisdom from one of our great lieutenants in Iraq . . .”

The way Cotton puts it is, “That gave me a little air cover.” A colonel at the Pentagon was good enough to send Schoomaker’s e-mail Cotton’s way.

When Cotton finally saw the battalion commander, the commander said, “Did you see the chief’s e-mail?” “Yes, sir.” “You know I was supposed to chew you out, right?” “Yes, I heard about that, sir.” “Do you know I’m now supposed to punch you on the shoulder and say ‘Attaboy’?” “I was hoping that would be the case, sir.” “Well, here’s a piece of advice: You’re new here. No one’s trying to infringe on your right to send a letter or whatnot. But next time, give your chain of command a heads-up.”

(This conversation, and the one before it with the company commander, has been heavily Bowdlerized for family-friendly reading.)

A lot of people — people on the left — thought Cotton’s letter was a fake: a product of the Bush war-propaganda machine. They could not believe that someone with Cotton’s background would up and join the infantry to fight in Iraq.

Even that name “Tom Cotton” seemed made up — it was a name from Tolkien, right? (Right.)

After the publication of his letter by Power Line, Cotton tells me, he received “several hundred e-mails from servicemen around the world, most of them encouraging.” And how about the prosecution of the Timesmen? Does he still feel they should have been prosecuted, or does he take that back?

“When people violate the espionage laws,” he says, “they should be prosecuted. They believe they have First Amendment rights, and that’s a defense they can assert in court. Reporters and editors don’t get to decide for themselves what is and is not a sensitive national-security matter. That’s for the American people to decide through their elected representatives. If people feel Congress has passed a law infringing on their rights, they can go ahead and assert that in court.”

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