Nine years later, Tom Cotton’s letter to the Times

We have written a lot over the years about the repeated violations of the Espionage Act by New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. They gave me a lot to work with in 2006. I wrote a January 2006 column for the Weekly Standard, for example, that the Standard titled “Exposure.” (I reposted it on Power Line last year under the heading “Is the Times a law unto itself?” in the context of Risen’s refusal to testify in the Espionage Act case brought against former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.)

Later that year Risen and Lichtblau blew the highly classified SWIFT terrorist finance tracking program in their Times story “Bank data is sifted by U.S. in secret to block terror.” In addition to its illegality under the Espionage Act, in my opinion, the story was an act of wanton destruction with no arguable public purpose.

Senator Tom Cotton was then a lieutenant serving in Baghdad. He copied us on a letter to the editor of the New York Times about Risen and Lichtblau’s June 2006 story blowing the SWFT program. The Times didn’t publish it, but we did.

The Times has never acknowledged Senator Cotton’s letter until today in Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine interview with Senator Cotton published as “Tom Cotton is not mailing it in.” The headline makes punning reference to Senator Cotton’s open letter to the mullahs that is discussed briefly in the interview. Senator Cotton confirms that he didn’t mail it in; he posted it online and tweeted it out to the Supreme Leader (the Supreme Leader of Iran, that is).

By contrast with the open letter to the Supreme Leader, Senator Cotton mailed in his 2006 letter; he mailed it in to the editor of the Times. The Times, however, did not find it worthy of publication.

Senator Cotton’s 2006 letter to the editor of the Times has never seen the light of day in the Times. Leibovich’s reference to Senator Cotton’s 2006 letter must be a complete mystery to readers who get their news from the New York Times.

Here is how Leibovich recalls Senator Cotton’s 2006 letter to the Times in the interview published in today’s Times Magazine together with Senator Cotton’s response:

[Mark Leibovich] In 2006, you wrote an open letter accusing three New York Times journalists of treason for exposing a secret U.S. program to track the financing of terror networks. Why are you talking to a treasonous newspaper?

[Senator Cotton] I would not paint with such a broad brush. But no private citizens, including journalists, have the right to decide what classified information will and will not be disclosed.

Here is then Lieutenant Cotton’s June 2006 letter to then executive editor of the Times Bill Keller and the two Times reporters, complete and unexpurgated, datelined Baghdad:

Dear Messrs. Keller, Lichtblau & Risen:

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. (Alas, operational security and common sense prevent me from even revealing this unclassified location in a private medium like email.)

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 to obtain mortars and artillery shells, priming explosives, wiring and circuitry, not to mention for training and payments to locals willing to emplace bombs in exchange for a few months’ salary. 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.

Very truly yours,

Tom Cotton
Baghdad, Iraq

In his four-part 2012 NR profile “Tom Cotton of Arkansas,” Jay Nordlinger told the rest of the story in part II (part III is here, part IV is here):

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.”

Times readers don’t know the rest of the story captured by Jay Nordlinger either. In the interest of adding a little context to Mark Leibovich’s interview of Senator Cotton today, I thought it might be worth revisiting this history or, in the case of Times readers, visiting it.

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