The Central Intelligence Agency is set to receive an advocate of waterboarding, sweeping surveillance powers, jailing journalists, and conflict with Iran as its next director.
A combat veteran and first-term Arkansas GOP senator, Tom Cotton has wasted little time building his twin reputations as one of the Senate’s hardest hardliners and friendliest Donald Trump allies. In one of his earliest Senate soundbites, he rebuked a Pentagon official in 2015 for the failed plan to close Guantanamo Bay, saying its detainees should “rot in hell.”
More recently, he has mocked the idea that Trump colluded with Russia.
Now, following months of whispered reporting, White House chief of staff John Kelly has developed a plan to transition Cotton over to the Central Intelligence Agency directorship—the better to oust flailing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director and fellow Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, according to the New York Times.
Cotton’s prospective arrival at the CIA is the latest dalliance with a restoration of torture to the spy agency’s agenda. Trump as a presidential candidate advocated “worse” torture techniques than waterboarding, only to proclaim himself swayed away from torture by the opposition of Jim Mattis, now the defense secretary.
While Pompeo had to signal the same opposition during his confirmation hearing, Cotton has been more explicit in favor of an act whose illegality was reconfirmed formally in 2015. An amendment from Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein banned the CIA from torturing detainees. Cotton voted against it.
“Waterboarding isn’t torture,” Cotton told CNN last November, offering the misleading defense that waterboarding done to train elite U.S. forces to resist torture—and, therefore, is not so bad.
"If experienced, intelligence professionals come to the president of the United States and say, 'we think this terrorist has critical information and we need to obtain it, and this is the only way we can obtain it,' that's a tough call but the presidency is a tough job and if you're not willing to make those tough calls, then you shouldn't seek the office. Donald Trump is a pretty tough guy and he's ready to make those tough calls."
But U.S. forces volunteer for such training, and the waterboarding gruesomely administered by the CIA during the Bush administration was far more severe, according to the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark 2014 report—“a series of near drownings" was how internal CIA cables described the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—and former torture-resistance instructors.
Glenn Carle, a retired CIA operations officer with interrogation experience, called Cotton “wholly unfit to be CIA director.”
“Those of us with some knowledge and objectivity have pointed out endlessly that torture does not work, is illegal, is unnecessary and harms the perpetrators of it,” Carle told The Daily Beast.
“Tom Cotton at present remains clueless about torture. He seems to base his beliefs on the efficacy of torture on B-movies and dog-eared Tom Clancy novels,” added former Navy interrogation-resistance instructor Malcolm Nance, who has been waterboarded and calls it torture.
“Hopefully learning the sacrifice of our POWs and bearing witness to the stars representing the lost, heroic men and women of the CIA, as well as speaking to those intelligence warriors who daily walk past the statue of Nathan Hale will inspire Cotton to maintain honor and eschew the disgrace of his torture advocacy,” Nance continued.
“I’d like to think the rhetoric is just rhetoric,” said Daniel Jones, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst and lead investigator for the Senate torture report.
“Behind closed doors there is broad consensus that the CIA interrogation program was ineffective, damaging to our standing in the world and detrimental to the safety of our military. The Committee’s near 7,000-page study of the CIA program, and the CIA’s own internal Panetta Review, leave no doubt as to what are the facts of this matter.”
Cotton shares another similarity with Pompeo: both are Iran hardliners. In 2015, Cotton instigated a highly unusual Senate Republican open letter to the Iranian regime meant to undermine the Obama administration’s landmark accord over Iran’s nuclear program. The letter said Obama’s successor could tear up the agreement with the “stroke of a pen.”
After Trump’s election, Cotton set to work making his prophecy self-fulfilling. He gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in October urging Trump to “decertify” the nuclear deal “even if they were complying with it.” Trump took up the idea, despite overwhelming opposition from U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany, which are signatories to the deal, and the continued finding of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is in compliance with its terms.
Cotton has spoken casually about war with Iran, offering that even if a bombing campaign doesn’t completely destroy the Iranian nuclear program, “You can destroy facilities,” he told Israeli reporters in 2015. “We can set them back to day zero.”
While Cotton has had less to say about what would follow after Iran retaliated, he is also in line with the Trump administration’s regional strategy: back a Saudi Arabia-led coalition against Iran. After Trump announced an intended weapons deal with the Gulf monarchy—and exaggerated it—Cotton applauded: “This arms deal sends the right message to both friend and foe alike: we will not stand by while an imperialist Iran suffocates the region in an unwanted embrace.”
Cotton himself knows the burden of war: he is an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, experience that informed and surely deepened his politics. In 2006, following the initial New York Times disclosure of sweeping post-9/11 warrantless surveillance, then-Lieutenant Cotton wrote a never-published letter to the Times’ reporters and editors hoping they would be jailed.
“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,” he wrote.
Cotton, who boasted in the letter of his Harvard Law School credentials, was plainly wrong about the law. Leaking classified material is criminal; publishing it is not. Asked in 2015 about the letter by the Times, he backpedaled: “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.”
But time has not softened Cotton’s advocacy for broad surveillance authorities. Though several of his ideological confederates dallied with undermining a 2008 authority permitting the collection of Americans’ international communications, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Cotton did not. In June, he introduced a measure to re-up the expiring law “permanently, as is, with no changes” that has gone far further than the meager privacy protections added to the House and Senate intelligence committees’ plans for 702 reauthorization.
His advocacy of the intelligence agencies speaks to the role Trump would need Cotton to play at Langley: a bridge to the security agency from a president who, as recently as last night, derides the “Deep State.” Yet Cotton’s mockery of the Russia investigation—an investigation stemming substantially from a conclusion, shared by the CIA, that Russia intervened in the 2016 election for Trump’s benefit—risks upsetting the balance.
In June testimony with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Cotton led Sessions on a jocular set of questions about his taste in spy fiction before delivering the punchline: “Have you ever in any of these fantastical situations hear of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States Senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of [inaudible]?”
And in a tweetstorm later that month, Cotton mocked the suggestion that Pompeo ought to have excluded then-national security adviser Mike Flynn from White House briefings owing to Flynn’s risk of compromise by the Russians. Cotton referred to the official who had warned the White House about Flynn’s counterintelligence exposure, Sally Yates—a career prosecutor under administrations of both parties – as a “Democratic partisan.” Flynn is now reportedly working on a cooperation agreement with special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
“I anticipate my colleagues at the agency will be dismayed” by a Cotton appointment, said ex-CIA officer Carle.
“We have frankly, at the best, far-right ideologues in leadership positions who frankly have fascistic tendencies. It is difficult to serve the executive, and serve a superior, with views that are fundamentally un-American.”
Some at the State Department, where Rex Tillerson has become widely reviled by career diplomats owing to his advocacy of paring U.S. diplomacy back substantially, are at least open to a change in leadership. While some are wary of Pompeo, they are sick of Tillerson, and want his key aides out—particularly deputy chief Christine Ciccone, who is now in charge of Tillerson’s “redesign” plan.
“Pompeo, I don’t believe, would voluntarily choose to preside over an impotent organization, whereas Tillerson seems perfectly content with being irrelevant and kneecapping the very organization he is supposed to support and lead. I think Pompeo would want information from the building and that would breathe new life into the diplomatic enterprise,” a State Department official told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.
“That said, who knows how he’d utilize that information, so I guess we have to wait and see. And maybe the president is right about having a higher IQ than Tillerson. Judging by how he has managed the department, it is Tillerson who has proven to be the actual moron.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein.