Tom Cotton on the Guantanamo Terrorists Who Can 'Rot in Hell'

The GOP's great hawk hope finds his viral video mojo.

on November 4, 2014 in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The political career of Tom Cotton began when he tried to publish a letter in the New York Times. It was 2006, and the newspaper had just run an exclusive story on a government program that tracked terrorist financing. Cotton, not yet 30, was serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He started with a wry apology for "not writing sooner," then lit the blowtorch.

"You may think you have done a public service," Cotton railed at the Times, "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. 

The letter was not published. It went viral instead. Conservative blogs, starting with Powerline—then still famous for its role in destroying Dan Rather's career over his fraudulent report on George W. Bush's National Guard service—published Cotton's demolition job. Cotton's language was so perfect that the conspiracy-debunking website Snopes ended up publishing a story about how, yes, a real soldier really wrote it.

"Much discussion has since ensued over whether Lt. Cotton is a real person (especially since 'Tom Cotton' is also the name of a Hobbit who appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)," the website wrote at the time. 

Six years later, Cotton won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and last year he bulldozed Democratic dynast Mark Pryor to win a Senate seat. One month into the new job, he's gone viral again, with a line of questioning at Thursday morning's hearing on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Arizona Senator John McCain, the new Armed Services chairman, had recently reversed course and turned against the Obama administration's campaign to close the facility. That denied Democrats a credible, war-scarred Republican voice. And when Cotton took his turn questioning Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense, Democrats learned that they'd gained a fierce Republican critic.

The transcript:

COTTON: I want to explore the so-called risk balance between recidivism of released terrorists and the propaganda value that terrorists get from Guantanamo Bay. How many recidivists are there at Guantanamo Bay right now?

MCKEON: I'm not sure I follow the question.

COTTON: How many detainees in Guantanamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti- American excitement?

MCKEON: There...

COTTON: ... because they're detained, because they only engage in that kind of recidivism overseas. Now let's look at the propaganda value. How many detainees were at Guantanamo Bay on September 11, 2001?

MCKEON: Zero.

COTTON: How many were there in October 2000 when al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole?

MCKEON: Zero.

COTTON: What about in 1998, when they bombed our embassies?

MCKEON: The facility was not open before 2002, Senator.

COTTON: In 1993 in the first World Trade Center bombing.

MCKEON: Same answer.

COTTON: In 1979, when Iran took over our embassy? In 1983, when Hezbollah bombed our embassy and our Marine barracks in Lebanon? The answer is zero.

MCKEON: Correct.

COTTON: Islamic terrorists don't need an excuse to attack the United States. They don't attack us for what we do, they attack us for who we are. It is not a security decision. It is a political decision based on a promise the president made on his campaign. To say that it is a security decision based on propaganda value that our enemies get from it is a pretext to justify a political decision. In my opinion, the only problem of Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don't do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay!

The Cotton video was quickly posted by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site that had previously listed "killing a terrorist" in a round-up of "what it means to be a man." The WFB story was shared more than 2000 times on Facebook; write-ups in The Huffington Post and progressive sites didn't burn quite as hot. It took until the late afternoon for Vox to capture the video, describing Cotton's moment as "bizarre rant," while the site's content director surmised that the senator "appears to be on large amounts of drugs."

Cotton's colleagues in the Senate didn't really push back. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has not ruled out running for the governor's office he used to hold, admitted that he "had really the same feeling that Senator Cotton had for a lot of years," before admitting that he wanted to transfer prisoners. Cotton had blown up the debate, though—instead of concerning whether the prisoners could live out their sentences in the continental United States, it had become about whether the people who questioned GTMO were excusing terrorism.

"What I do not want to see, and all of us should be able to agree on this, that we do not want to see detainees from GTMO being released and returning to the fight," said Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican and Iraq War veteran elected in 2013. "My sentiments are exactly like Senator Cotton's. I could care less. They really should not be out there where they can threaten American lives or our NATO allies, their lives."

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