IN IRAQ DAYS: Tom Cotton would have arrested reporters.

  • IN IRAQ DAYS: Tom Cotton would have arrested reporters.

Republican Tom Cotton, the Washington consultant who moved to a family house in Dardanelle after 17 years away from Arkansas to run for Congress, is getting some new national attention now that he’s the Republican nominee for 4th District Congress and the conventional-wisdom-favorite for election in the fall.

Mother Jones does the honors today, remembering Cotton’s antipathy to a free press.

In 2006, Tom Cotton, a twentysomething US Army lieutenant serving in Iraq, wrote an open letter calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of two of the New York Times’ most prominent reporters, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, who had just broken a major story about how the government was tracking terrorist financing. The letter, which also called for the prosecution of Bill Keller, the Times’ then-executive editor, was initially published on the conservative blog PowerLine but soon went viral.

As Mother Jones note, Cotton became an instant right-wing celebrity, a celebrity he used to good advantage piling up hundreds of thousands of dollars in Club for Growth and eastern moneybag contributions for his campaign. There is, of course, more where that came from.

Not everyone lauded Cotton.

Outside experts are skeptical of the idea of prosecuting journalists for publishing secrets. “The espionage act has never been used against journalists,” explains Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “When you accuse investigative journalists of espionage, you are essentially saying that they’re working for another power, or aiding the enemy. That is culture war tactics taken to an extreme.”

Obviously, there were no prosecutions. Reporter Lichtblau commented:

The same First Amendment freedoms that allowed Lt. Cotton to put out his letter allowed us to publish our story on the SWIFT program, a decision that the newspaper’s top editors did not make lightly. Our story clearly concerned a matter of great public interest that went to the heart of the debate over national security versus civil liberties, and there was no evidence at the time the story was published in 2006, or in the five years since, that it endangered American lives.

Even some critics of the Times weren’t so impressed with Cotton.

Steven Aftergood, an expert in government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, says he doesn’t necessarily agree with the Times’ decision to publish but that Cotton’s legal judgment is lacking. “Should the Times have been indicted and prosecuted? Of course not,” Aftergood said, laughing. “To believe in the free press means to allow for the exercise of editorial judgment. If you want to say people cannot choose to publish such information, then you don’t believe in a free press.”

I suspect Cotton likes his odds if someone were to run against him as an enemy of them lyin’ newspapers.