Dana Milbank rages against Tom Cotton

In the first few years after 9/11 it seemed very likely that al Qaeda would attack the U.S. homeland again and almost certain it was plotting to do so. Indeed, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday (about which more below), one Senator recalled credible reports that al Qaeda was planning to attack the U.S. with a dirty (nuclear) bomb.

Our government needed to know what al Qaeda was plotting. Finding out required interrogating captured terrorists.

Captured terrorists were not inclined to provide truthful information to their captors. Thus, usual interrogation techniques sometimes did not produce good intelligence.

In some such cases, the CIA resorted to enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. The Agency relied on a memo from the Department of Justice stating that the interrogation techniques in question were lawful.

Gina Haspel was one of the CIA employees involved in the heroic effort to find out, via enhanced interrogation, what al Qaeda was plotting. She played an important part. However, she did not make decisions regarding enhanced interrogation. These were made higher up the chain of command.

A decade and a half later, Haspel is President Trump’s nominee to head the CIA. She is endorsed by past intelligence community leaders across the political spectrum, including anti-Trumpers John Brennan and James Clapper. Former Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat, introduced her to the Senate Intelligence Committee at her confirmation hearing yesterday.

Unfortunately, Bayh’s introduction was not the prelude to a serious discussion of Haspel’s views and qualifications. Instead, the hearing produced a nauseating display of Democratic partisanship and second-guessing of old, discarded policies Haspel had no involvement in deciding upon, but that leading congressional Democratic signed off on during the relevant time period, back when it looked like America was about to be attacked again.

We know the Democrats were engaged in blatant partisanship yesterday because when John Brennan was before the same committee seeking confirmation for the same job, the Dems did not behave the same way. In fact, Brennan was confirmed comfortably, even though, unlike Haspel, he was a CIA decisionmaker in the post 9-11 years and backed the interrogation policies the Democrats turned against after the threat from al Qaeda subsided.

Several Republican Senators made this point. None did so more effectively than our friend Sen. Tom Cotton.

To my knowledge, Cotton is the only member of the committee who has fought in the war on terrorism. He left a job at a top law firm to do so. He then served in the two main theaters of America’s anti-terrorism war, Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, committee Democrats have heckled from the sidelines.

Yesterday, Cotton could not conceal his disgust with the hypocritical posturing of committee Dems. Once, he briefly interrupted Sen. Jack Reed. Another time, he interrupted Sen. Mark Warner more persistently.

These minor breaches of decorum caused Dana Milbank to unload on Cotton today. Milbank described Tom as “rage-filled” and declared that he “has surpassed Ted Cruz as the most disliked member of the Senate.”

The first claim is nonsense. I spent dozens of hours with Cotton during the time between his tour in Iraq and his tour in Afghanistan (has Milbank spent any?) and perhaps a dozen more since he returned from Afghanistan. This is not a man filled with rage.

Nor did Cotton display rage yesterday. He did not shout or use derogatory language. It’s fair to criticize him for interrupting his colleagues, but Milbank is simply making it up when he talks about rage.

I’m pretty sure Milbank is also making it up when he crowns Tom the Senate’s least popular member. Certainly, Milbank offers no evidence that supports a statement this sweeping.

I know that Tom has a good relationship with the Majority Leader. I doubt this would be true if he were widely unpopular within the Republican caucus.

No Milbank column would be complete without a dose of intellectual dishonesty. Milbank does not disappoint.

He reminds us that “it was Cotton who in 2015 wrote a letter to ‘the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran’ discouraging them from negotiating with the Obama administration.” Actually, Cotton simply informed these leaders that, without Senate ratification, the next administration could “revoke [the Iran nuclear agreement] with the stroke of a pen.” This, of course, is exactly what has happened.

And Milbank omits the fact that Cotton’s letter was signed by 46 of his Republican Senate colleagues. This is hardly an indicator of unpopularity.

Milbank also finds fault with Cotton for asking Haspel: “If Hillary Clinton had won and nominated you to be CIA director, how many votes do you think you would have gotten?” But Milbank fails to inform his readers that Sen. John Cornyn made the same point — a fair one, given the experience with John Brennan discussed above.

Milbank’s real problem with Cotton lies in the Senator’s policy preferences and his effectiveness in promoting them. Milbank gives this away when he attacks Cotton for going to the White House “to dissuade Trump from backing a bipartisan immigration compromise.” The implication is that Cotton was obligated to muffle his opposition to immigration legislation he strongly disagreed with merely because some Republican Senators supported it, a ridiculous notion.

In this instance, Milbank has converted his policy disagreement with Cotton into an attack on the Senator’s personality. All the while, he castigates Cotton for being unable to disagree without being disagreeable.

The flaw extends to Milbank’s entire hit-piece. It’s based on the notion of civil, good faith disagreement, an ideal that has always been alien to the snarky Milbank and that was repeatedly violated by the preening, moralistic, hypocritical committee Democrats during the Haspel hearing.

The closest Milbank comes to a truthful evaluation of Cotton is this statement: “Cotton is no ordinary guy.” With that statement comes a link to an article about Tom that Jennifer Rubin wrote in 2012.

The article is quite complimentary (Rubin has changed her view of Cotton, along with her view of much else, but that’s another story). It is inconsistent with much of what Milbank wrote today. I wonder whether he bothered to read Rubin’s article in full.

Milbank asked Cotton’s office whether the Senator has regrets about the hearing. Tom answered Milbank this way:

I regret Senator Warner implied that Gina Haspel and other CIA officers belonged in jail. I regret Senator Reed compared patriotic CIA officers to terrorists. I regret Senate Democrats are shocked when they are called to account. . . . I regret Senate Democrats are so blinded by their hatred of Donald Trump.

Milbank calls this “rage.” I call it a fair summary of how committee Democrats behaved yesterday.

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