It sure looks like Rep. Tom Cotton is going to be a United States senator. Cotton, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, is an Army vet who completed combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sits on the House financial services and foreign affairs committees. And he is, to the extent there is such a thing, a “conservative superstar.”
He also may want to throw a few journalists in jail.
In June 2006, New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen (who has a new book out) broke a story on how the US government had been tracking terrorist financing. “Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States,” the piece read.
The secret program, which was run out of the CIA but overseen by the Treasury Department, was considered by the Bush administration to be a vital aspect of the war on terror.
Well, right-wing media and prominent conservative politicians—from Ann Coulter all the way to President George W. Bush—were incredibly pissed off by the Times’ decision to run Lichtblau and Risen’s reporting. And among the pissed-off was Tom Cotton, then serving in Iraq. He wrote an open letter—posted to the conservative blog Power Line—that quickly went viral. It called for the prosecution of the Times journalists involved. Here’s an excerpt of Cotton’s angry letter:
“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.”
(Just a couple months before the publication of their terrorist-finances story, Lichtblau and Risen had won a Pulitzer for their work uncovering other secret Bush-era programs, such as the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping.)
The idea of prosecuting and imprisoning anyone at the Times for that story is patently ridiculous, and doesn’t pass the smell test when presented to experts in the field. “The same First Amendment freedoms that allowed Lt. Cotton to put out his letter allowed us to publish our story on the SWIFT program,” Lichtblau told Mother Jones in 2011. “[T]here was no evidence at the time the story was published in 2006, or in the five years since, that it endangered American lives.”
Risen has also found himself in hot water with the Department of Justice—and certainly just not with Bush’s. The reporter has been fighting a subpoena issued in May 2011 ordering him to testify in a trial against an ex-CIA employee named Jeffrey Sterling. Federal prosecutors claim that Sterling leaked classified information to Risen for his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. (Risen has repeatedly said that he would rather go to jail than reveal the identity of his confidential source. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has insisted that imprisoning journalists isn’t part of his gameplan.)
This episode is just one in the Obama administration’s long-running, unusually harsh war on whistleblowers and leakers. Risen recently slammed President Obama as “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
Rep. Cotton usually doesn’t have much of anything nice to say about the president or his policies—but perhaps they can find some common ground over their mutual annoyance at this New York Times reporter.
It’s tough to say. A Cotton campaign spokesman did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment asking what the congressman thought about the Obama administration’s actions regarding Risen.