Uncommon Knowledge: Tom Cotton on Whether He Still Thinks the Editors of the New York Times Should be Behind Bars

 

The first time that most Americans heard of now-Senator Tom Cotton was in 2006, when, while serving as a lieutenant in Iraq, he wrote a famous letter to the New York Times upbraiding them for publishing the secret details of the federal government’s anti-terrorist financing program. The conclusion of that letter: “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.” In this final clip from our recent conversation on Uncommon Knowledge, I ask him, at the remove of nearly a decade, if he still stands by those words:

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  1. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Exactly so, Senator Cotton. It was treason to put the lives of American military personnel at risk.

    Especially when there are a million ways to get a message out without getting specific. These are writers and editors. They had to know the likely effects of what they were doing. Wording can always be changed to protect people.

    I started out in textbook publishing, and there were lots of compositors but very few expert page makeup guys. Publishers had to wait in line to get a spot on the light table of the best page makeup artists, and we didn’t make inordinate demands for page remaking. In fact, we would do anything to avoid remaking pages. We used to joke that if the page makeup guy asked us to “drop a line” to make pages align, there would be no compunctions about removing the repeated line at the end of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

    The New York Times knew exactly what they were doing. There were many options available to the editors.

    Senator Cotton gives me hope for future. An highly intelligent, rational person.

    • #1
  2. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Senator Cotton is terrifying to me.

    When the government tramples the rights of free citizens, it is up to decent people to stand up and say something.  Secrecy is an anathema to a society and a free republic.

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:Senator Cotton is terrifying to me.

    When the government tramples the rights of free citizens, it is up to decent people to stand up and say something. Secrecy is an anathema to a society and a free republic.

    I have to disagree with you vehemently on this one. Yes, unless you are putting lives at risk by doing so.

    And there were a million other steps the New York Times could have taken to achieve its objective of letting the public know what was going on.

    • #3
  4. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Tommy De Seno
    @TommyDeSeno

    I’m INFURIATED by this answer coming from him!

    This is the guy who one-two punched the sole-organ doctrine and the Logan Act in the same letter, putting America’s security at risk by pulling his own chair into the Iran negotiations being conducted by the President.

    Who should be behind bars?

    • #4
  5. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:I have to disagree with you vehemently on this one. Yes, unless you are putting lives at risk by doing so.

    Thus is the excuse we’ve heard for decades (especially this last one) for any number of crimes against the American public and against human liberty.

    Any citizen should beware the politician who defends secrecy in a free society.  Doubly so if he thinks journalist should go to prison for reporting on the government’s crimes.

    • #5
  6. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:I have to disagree with you vehemently on this one. Yes, unless you are putting lives at risk by doing so.

    Thus is the excuse we’ve heard for decades (especially this last one) for any number of crimes against the American public and against human liberty.

    Any citizen should beware the politician who defends secrecy in a free society. Doubly so if he thinks journalist should go to prison for reporting on the government’s crimes.

    How do you think we won World War II? Secrecy and spies. Even George Washington had them.

    You are trying to box this argument into a corner in which I say there should be no classified top-secret material, and I’m not going there.

    I’m on Bill Snowden’s side. I’m okay with the Pentagon Papers.

    This was a different situation.

    • #6
  7. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    There are no absolutes.

    Suppose there’s a serial killer on the loose. The police task force finds out that the alleged killer is going to be at X restaurant at 5 o’clock in the evening. A reporter in the room hears that and publishes that information. The serial killer reads it and doesn’t go to the restaurant but instead kills another person.

    Yes, the reporter had the right to publish that information.

    And the reporter, as a responsible adult, must accept the consequences of his or her actions. He or she helped the serial killer evade capture and kill another person.

    I no longer read the New York Times.

    • #7
  8. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:There are no absolutes.

    Suppose there’s a serial killer on the loose. The police task force finds out that the alleged killer is going to be at X restaurant at 5 o’clock in the evening. A reporter in the room hears that and publishes that information. The serial killer reads it and doesn’t go to the restaurant but instead kills another person.

    Yes, the reporter had the right to publish that information.

    And the reporter, as a responsible adult, must accept the consequences of his or her actions. He or she helped the serial killer evade capture and kill another person.

    So in this scenario, the American public are serial killers?

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:There are no absolutes.

    Suppose there’s a serial killer on the loose. The police task force finds out that the alleged killer is going to be at X restaurant at 5 o’clock in the evening. A reporter in the room hears that and publishes that information. The serial killer reads it and doesn’t go to the restaurant but instead kills another person.

    Yes, the reporter had the right to publish that information.

    And the reporter, as a responsible adult, must accept the consequences of his or her actions. He or she helped the serial killer evade capture and kill another person.

    So in this scenario, the American public are serial killers?

    No, good grief.  :)   Of course not.

    Let us separate the two issues: Did the New York Times have the right to publish that information? Yes.

    Should it have? No.

    Thankfully, I am able to vote with my feet and my pocketbook. Clearly, the New York Times is not on my side, and neither is Al Jazeera. I won’t read either one.

    Did the New York Times commit treason? I do not know enough law to say one way or the other. The little that I know would put me on the treason side.

    That said, back to my original contention: The New York Times has an inhouse legal staff that General Electric would envy. They knew exactly what they were doing, how far they could go, what the likely consequences would be. They knew the lives they would be putting at risk by publishing.

    The president of the United States asked the New York Times not to publish sensitive information because there were lives at stake, and the New York Times did it anyway. If that is not aiding and abetting the enemy in its attempt to evade capture, I don’t know what is. Which is the point of the serial killer example.

    The terrorist is the serial killer in my example.

    Going one step further: The NYT is a private business corporation. It is obligated to no one except its shareholders. It exists for one reason only: to make a profit. I have no problem with that. I just wish the public would keep that fact in mind.

    Almost none of the NYT’s readers were in a position to do anything with the information it published on that story. The story was sensational, and lots of people wanted to be entertained by reading it. Publishing the story was good for the NYT, at least on a short-term basis.

    I think it hurt them ultimately, as I and many others thought their actions were despicable.

    And last I checked, there’s a multibillionaire from Mexico who is trying to buy it. It is in such bad shape businesswise that no wealthy Americans want to buy it. Same with the Boston Globe. Circulation has plummeted.

    You can offend people only so much and so often before they walk away.

    • #9
  10. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:

    Let us separate the two issues: Did the New York Times have the right to publish that information? Yes.

    Okay.  Just so we’re clear, Senator Cotton disagrees with you.  He thinks they should go to jail for publishing what they did.

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I’m not sure I like it when Uncommon Knowledge has a currently-serving politician as the guest.

    No matter how much I may happen to like a particular politician, they all have that carefully-crafted delivery style that might work fine in a press conference, but really seems out of place in the conversational atmosphere of UK.

    Cotton’s whole response reeks of “talking point”. That’s not to say that it isn’t sincere, merely that it comes across as a carefully scripted and rehearsed performance.

    UK is not Meet The Press.  UK, at its best, is a reprieve from that kind of dog & pony show!

    Compare his performance to that of Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush, who went on UK after they’d left office. They were so much more conversational.

    Disclaimer: This is entirely a critique of the aesthetics of the show, rather than the substance.

    • #11
  12. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:

    Let us separate the two issues: Did the New York Times have the right to publish that information? Yes.

    Okay. Just so we’re clear, Senator Cotton disagrees with you. He thinks they should go to jail for publishing what they did.

    Okay, I thought about that after I wrote what I did. By “right to publish,” then you mean free of being charged with a crime.

    As I said, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know how this works as to what constitutes treason.

    Had the NYT published the exact D Day plans ahead of time, should the editors have gone to jail? Interesting question.

    It’s sort of akin to the freedom to protect their sources. Meh. Usually, but there are some exceptions, I think. If a reporter knew ahead of time about the Oklahoma City bombing, if the reporter failed to make that information and his source known to authorities, should that reporter go to jail?

    I didn’t hear Cotton say they should go to jail. Did he said that in his first letter years ago that Mr. Robinson is referring to?

    • #12
  13. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:I didn’t hear Cotton say they should go to jail. Did he said that in his first letter years ago that Mr. Robinson is referring to?

    Quote from Tom Cotton’s letter:

    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. (Emphasis added)

    Tom Cotton thinks they should be jailed for printing it.  When offered the chance to retract his comments, he stood by them.

    • #13
  14. iDad Inactive
    iDad
    @iDad

    Tommy De Seno:I’m INFURIATED by this answer coming from him!

    This is the guy who one-two punched the sole-organ doctrine and the Logan Act in the same letter, putting America’s security at risk by pulling his own chair into the Iran negotiations being conducted by the President.

    Who should be behind bars?

    How dare he attempt to derail that magnificent diplomatic triumph!

    • #14
  15. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:I didn’t hear Cotton say they should go to jail. Did he said that in his first letter years ago that Mr. Robinson is referring to?

    Quote from Tom Cotton’s letter:

    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. (Emphasis added)

    Tom Cotton thinks they should be jailed for printing it. When offered the chance to retract his comments, he stood by them.

    I don’t know. This is a sticky issue. My D Day and Oklahoma City bomber questions pertain here.  That said, I wish there were more reporting on Obama’s drone program. I’m nervous that he is doing this without answering to the general public.

    I don’t know the law as to which revelations amount to treason and which don’t.

    But I respect Cotton’s objections made from his perch in Iraq.

    • #15
  16. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Tommy De Seno
    @TommyDeSeno

    iDad:

    Tommy De Seno:I’m INFURIATED by this answer coming from him!

    This is the guy who one-two punched the sole-organ doctrine and the Logan Act in the same letter, putting America’s security at risk by pulling his own chair into the Iran negotiations being conducted by the President.

    Who should be behind bars?

    How dare he attempt to derail that magnificent diplomatic triumph!

    He can try to derail it when the deal is brought to the Senate.

    How dare he violate the Sole Organ doctrine, which his own chamber’s committee said makes America less safe.

    • #16
  17. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:But I respect Cotton’s objections made from his perch in Iraq.

    And that’s another thing.  It’s inappropriate for an army officer to do what he did.

    • #17
  18. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:But I respect Cotton’s objections made from his perch in Iraq.

    And that’s another thing. It’s inappropriate for an army officer to do what he did.

    If you accept the premise asserted by President Bush that disclosing the information that the New York Times published put American lives at risk, if by no other means than that information breach interfered with GW’s efforts to thwart terrorist attacks before they happened, then why was it inappropriate for a military officer to support his commander in chief and his fellow military members?

    And should freedom of speech extend at least to the military? They should get at least as much freedom of speech as the NYT, should they not?

    We’re talking past each other. I do not know where the intersections are between freedom of the press and freedom of speech and treason.

    From my own reading at the time of the NYT story on the tracking of the terrorists’ banking activities, I would side with GW and say that the NYT compromised our war on terror efforts.

    And I would side with Cotton in his writing of the letter he wrote to Iran, given Kerry’s history of selling out the South Vietnamese in Paris. Especially since President Obama shunned Netanyahu when he spoke to Congress.

    Short of a real jury trial, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t believe Cotton did anything wrong.

    • #18
  19. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    MarciN:And should freedom of speech extend at least to the military?

    No, actually.  You put on the uniform and you agree to have your rights curbed substantially, including freedom of speech, while in uniform.

    • #19
  20. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Fred Cole:

    MarciN:And should freedom of speech extend at least to the military?

    No, actually. You put on the uniform and you agree to have your rights curbed substantially, including freedom of speech, while in uniform.

    They are not allowed to speak against the president or Congress, but the NYT is not on the list.

    • #20
  21. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    The Pentagon Papers were released in 1971. We were out fully in 1975. I don’t think they did much else but embarrass past and sitting presidents. I would say the same of the Snowden leaks.

    The NYT, in contrast, leaked information about an ongoing system being used to track terrorists’ money movements.

    In my mind, there’s a big difference in these two types of situations.

    Whether Cotton was right about treason being on the table in terms of the NYT, I do not know because I am not a lawyer. I know these cases are very complicated.

    • #21
  22. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Fred Cole:Senator Cotton is terrifying to me.

    I think that’s one reason so many American conservatives like him, to say nothing of so many others among us. Hopefully, he will one day run for the presidency.

    When the government tramples the rights of free citizens, it is up to decent people to stand up and say something.

    Would you include yourself among decent citizens? Would you say, writing this comment is the full extent of what you are going to do in defense of the rights of free citizenship?

    Secrecy is an anathema to a society and a free republic.

    Are you not a little ashamed to talk in phrases like this, would you not make fun of any politician who did?

    Obviously, you do not know what the word anathema means, but to go by what you seem to mean, Lincoln & Churchill were anathema to ‘a society & a free republic’, which is a terrible phrase in so many different ways! So was FDR. So is every war president, I expect–as was pointed out to you, espionage was already there with Washington. After all, as they saw fit to run the war–they were committed to committing what you seem to think is unforgivable crimes against the rights of &c. &c.

    If the people listened to people like you getting hysterical–terror is what you feel?–when they actually had to make the choice of commander-in-chief or if they felt like listening to you & throwing out such commanders-in-chief, the people who reasonably could expected to defend freedom & free gov’t would never get the chance to do it.

    • #22
  23. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    To reiterate some of what is in the original post:  The NYT never published Cotton’s letter to them. It was actually published by one of my favorite websites, the Power Line Blog.

    The letter is worth reading (it’s at the link above).

    Cotton’s life story is worth knowing as well. He is wise beyond his years, as the saying goes. It makes me think of David French, both Harvard Law School graduates who went to Iraq to serve their country.

    • #23
  24. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    I’m with Fred on this one insofar as the appropriateness of his original letter while serving as an officer.

    Service members are perfectly within their rights to engage in political activism…as a private citizen. But not while in uniform or when speaking as a representative of the military.

    It may not have been strictly against regulation to publicly rebuke a newspaper, vs say the president or chain of command. But it was still wholly inappropriate for a commissioned officer to write a public letter like that. I’m amazed nothing became of it in his chain of command.

    • #24
  25. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Byron Horatio:I’m with Fred on this one insofar as the appropriateness of his original letter while serving as an officer.

    Service members are perfectly within their rights to engage in political activism…as a private citizen.But not while in uniform or when speaking as a representative of the military.

    It may not have been strictly against regulation to publicly rebuke a newspaper, vs say the president or chain of command.But it was still wholly inappropriate for a commissioned officer to write a public letter like that.I’m amazed nothing became of it in his chain of command.

    I’m unsure about this. I am surprised that people who talk citizen rights as loudly as your Mr. Cole are so callous about the citizen rights of the warrior class. I do agree that the state & institutions are not to be discussed in any way that disparages them or that could reasonably be construed as insubordinate or disloyal. The guy talks as if he exacted the oath from Sen. Cotton himself & instructed him as to what is permitted & what forbidden!

    But when it comes to talking politics with a newspaper having nothing to do with loyalty to the authorized powers, I would rather the warrior class take an interest in politics & the public discourse concerning the common good.

    • #25
  26. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Byron Horatio:I’m with Fred on this one insofar as the appropriateness of his original letter while serving as an officer.

    Service members are perfectly within their rights to engage in political activism…as a private citizen.But not while in uniform or when speaking as a representative of the military.

    It may not have been strictly against regulation to publicly rebuke a newspaper, vs say the president or chain of command.But it was still wholly inappropriate for a commissioned officer to write a public letter like that.I’m amazed nothing became of it in his chain of command.

    THANK YOU!  That’s the more elegant way of putting what I was getting at.

    Members of the armed forces agree to a different set of rules and rights when they put on the uniform.  It was wholly inappropriate to write that letter.

    I don’t need to see him prosecuted or reprimanded in any way.  But the fact that he’s held up as some kind of hero, and that no one even mentions that he broke into politics by engaging in such impropriety is troubling.

    Those rules exist for a reason.  And they don’t cease to exist because you happen to agree with someone.

    • #26
  27. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Titus Techera:I’m unsure about this. I am surprised that people who talk citizen rights as loudly as your Mr. Cole are so callous about the citizen rights of the warrior class. I do agree that the state & institutions are not to be discussed in any way that disparages them or that could reasonably be construed as insubordinate or disloyal. The guy talks as if he exacted the oath from Sen. Cotton himself & instructed him as to what is permitted & what forbidden!

    But when it comes to talking politics with a newspaper having nothing to do with loyalty to the authorized powers, I would rather the warrior class take an interest in politics & the public discourse concerning the common good.

    wouldn’t.  We have a long tradition in this country of separating officers in uniform from politics.  The highest ranking officer of the military is still receives orders from civilians.  We have bans on military members engaging in politics.

    Why do we do this?  Because when you mix military and politics in a formal way, it tends to end republics.

    As far as me being “callous about the citizen rights of the warrior class,” not at all.  I’m merely stating a correct understanding of the situation: a free citizen naturally has rights.  But when you put on a uniform, you accept substantial curbs to those rights, including the right to free speech.

    And not for nothing, but this notion used to be uncontroversial among conservatives.

    • #27
  28. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    In what way was Cotton’s letter to the New York Times engaging in politics?

    The law says only that military personnel cannot speak publicly against Congress or the president. In Cotton’s letter he is clearly defending the president and Congress, and his country too, by the way, which he has sworn an oath to do.

    And furthermore, the issue his letter discusses did not pertain to an election or referendum of any kind. Hence, it was not political speech.

    The military silence law is a complicated law beyond that. Here’s a link to a description of a current case where a guy has disparaged the military and the president on his Facebook page.

    There are compelling cases to be made on both sides of the advisability of our military silence laws (or are they simply codes of ethics?). On the one hand, it protects dictators. On the other hand, it protects the chain of command that can save American lives, including the lives of military personnel.

    It also protects other military personnel from one staff member’s releasing mission-compromising information to the press.

    The laws in this regard, both the spirit and the letter, are complicated.

    But Cotton’s letter is a no-brainer to me. It did nothing wrong:

    • It was not political. It did not concern a vote for a person or a referendum.
    • It did not criticize the president or Congress or the United States.
    • It did not reveal classified or top secret information.
    • #28
  29. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Here is a brief Wikipedia summary of the “military expression” issue from a legal standpoint.

    I cannot find the actual contract that U.S. military members sign with regard to their exercise of their right to free speech.

    I shall keep looking.

    • #29
  30. Byron Horatio Inactive
    Byron Horatio
    @ByronHoratio

    It probably wasn’t against a particular regulation. But it is a huge faux pas for military personnel (officers especially) to engage in public, political discourse. Especially when they explicitly invoke their uniform and rank. (“As a currently serving lieutenant in Iraq…”). At the very least, it should have been anonymous. But it appears to have paid off.

    In the units I’ve been in, any officer who would have done that would have had the hammer brought down on him. Our absolute separation of military and politics is why we have not had coups, strongmen, or Caesars.

    Some here are lamenting this line of thinking as curtailing the constitutional rights of the soldiery. But that’s not true at all. I know many servicemen involved in local and state political activism, but they don’t do so in uniform.

    • #30

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