Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Part II
Jay Nordlinger on a conservative ‘rock star.’

Captain Tom Cotton, January 13, 2009


Editor’s Note: Yesterday began Jay Nordlinger’s series on Tom Cotton, the Republican nominee for Congress in Arkansas’s Fourth District. For that first installment, go here.

When 9/11 occurred, Cotton was in his third and final year of law school. He resolved he would join the fight. When he went to enlist, the recruiter recommended the JAG Corps — the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. This is the legal arm of the military. Cotton was, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Law School. And he had a clerkship and some private practice under his belt.

Cotton said no: He wanted to fight. He went through the Army Ranger School, and went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Later, he volunteered for Afghanistan, where he served another tour of duty. He was in the Army from about 2005 to 2009, leaving with the rank of captain. Among his decorations is the Bronze Star Medal.

He could tell stories of combat, as any such person could — harrowing stories. He does not strike me as the type to do so, certainly not unprompted.

In the summer of 2006, an unusual episode occurred: He wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. The letter, though not published in the Times, got attention.

Here’s what happened: Soldiers were afforded some Internet time, between long patrols. Cotton used his to catch up on the news. He discovered that the New York Times had published yet more national-security secrets, this time exposing an operation to track terrorist financing. It had been a particularly rough period for Cotton, at war, and he fired off “what may have been an intemperate letter,” as he says.

The letter:

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. . . .

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 . . . 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.

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.