HH: I hope you got a chance to see Congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas in his brief exchange with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, putting on a little clinic for his more senior colleagues on how to ask questions and not make statements. He joins me now. Congressman Cotton, Happy New Year, welcome back.
TC: Happy New Year, Hugh, it’s always great to be on your show.
HH: Did you learn what you had hoped to learn in the little bit of time that was allocated to you today?
TC: Not entirely, no. I wanted to ask the Secretary about the status of the investigation. And while she said her change in tone did not indicate concern about the direction of the investigation, I was also a little surprised to hear that she was not distressed by the fact that the Tunisian government had released Ali Harzi a couple of weeks ago. He was the main suspect. I would also have liked to have explored a little bit more fully the relationship between the al Qaeda operatives who conducted the attack in Benghazi, the ones who conducted the protests in Egypt and in Yemen, and then most recently at the Algerian gas plant, because I think there is clear ties between all of these attacks that show that al Qaeda is not defeated, but is in fact on the march across Northern Africa and the Middle East.
HH: Yeah, I was surprised by her responses to both of your questions as to the idea that the core of al Qaeda is severely depleted. That’s simply not true, but she said that under oath to you. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but the core of al Qaeda is obviously quite well and alive in Algeria and other places. And I also was surprised, as you were, but I said to Rand Paul, I used the wrong country, Libyan, but she talked to the Tunisian authorities, and then she didn’t tell you what they said. What in the world is going on there?
TC: It’s very unclear, and the reporting I’ve seen, both internally in the House and also just open source reporting that you can find on the internet does not indicate why the Tunisian government released him, or what steps they’re taking to ensure that he’s being surveilled. Likewise with the Libyan authorities. Tunisia, we provided 2% of their budget over the last 18 months. Libya, we actually helped create the government in the first place. You would think these governments might be a little bit more cooperative in our needs to bring these terrorists to justice.
HH: Now Congressman Cotton, your chairman is an old friend of mine, Ed Royce. Good man, very smart. But when you have that many Congressmen stepping over each other trying to get a line of questioning, the lawyer in you must be very frustrated, because you can’t really develop any kind of a line of questioning in that setting.
TC: Yeah, I’m still new to Congress, Hugh, but I have observed several of my peers that it can be hard to conduct a thematic and compelling hearing when each Congressman has a different series of questions they want to ask, or a little bit more regrettably, a statement they want to make. You know, we have some great prosecutors in our Republican conference like Trey Gowdy, and I would like to say that we should follow the Trey Gowdy rule. Imagine him cross-examining the witness, and then let’s try to do the coordination necessary to get as close to that ideal as we can.
HH: Amen, and I have been saying this, that in the radio business, you get nine minutes. You learn it’s important to ask questions and then let the witness respond. You did that today. But I found over the Senate side especially there was so much interruption and cross-talk that you really don’t get anything out of the witness.
TC: It is the case often times. I say again, just as an observer over the years, these hearings were often not very thematically coherent. And this is my first hearing today. I’ve done the same thing to some degree there. I think that it would be a little more efficient if we asked more questions rather than made more statements, and let the witness answer those questions, especially when it’s someone as prominent as Secretary Clinton. But we’ll see going forward if we can work together as a team to develop that prosecutorial standard.
HH: What subcommittees are you going to be on, Congressman Cotton, on Foreign Affairs?
TC: On Foreign Affairs, I’m on the Middle Eastern and Northern Africa subcommittees, so I’ll be revisiting these issues routinely. And I’m on the Terrorism, Trade and Non-Proliferation subcommittee.
HH: Oh, these are excellent, those are terrific assignments, and I hope that they use the hearing authority. How about on Financial Services? Which subcommittees are you on?
TC: I am on Financial Institutions, which is very important for Arkansas, because that’s the subcommittee that will be overseeing Dodd-Frank and its impact on community banks, which is really all we have in Arkansas, but it’s also very critical for our economy. And then, Hugh, you may be sad to hear this, I’m on Monetary Policy with your friend, John Campbell.
HH: Oh, no. Oh, no. You’ll never get a word in edgewise. I mean, he’s from USC. He talks and talks and talks. Have you ever heard him on this show? He never, I can’t get a question in. Well, good luck to you on that, but you do get to talk to the chairman of the Fed then.
TC: I do, yes, in a few weeks.
HH: All right, now stepping back, going back to the hearings today, at the end of this, what do we need to know that we don’t know about Benghazi, Congressman Tom Cotton?
TC: One thing that we didn’t hear much about in the hearing today is what happened in the seven or eight hours of the attack. I’m still waiting for a clear picture of that. I did not think Secretary Clinton was necessarily the best witness, and our committee might not even be the best committee to understand that. That might be something for the Armed Services Committee or the Intelligence Committee to see exactly what kind of requests for assistance were made, and what the response was from whom in the government. That’s one big point. The second big point is what we actually are doing to bring these terrorists to justice, or bring justice to them, because based on the reporting that I’ve seen, and the hearing today, it’s not clear that the investigation into this is much further along that it was four months ago.
HH: Now I also think it’s the second time in four months Americans have been attacked and killed by al Qaeda-aligned terrorists in Algeria. And when the Secretary of State says the core of al Qaeda is severely depleted, we have a major issue. It affects your entire worldview. What do you think about that, Tom Cotton? Is the core of al Qaeda severely depleted?
TC: No, I don’t. I mean, honestly, the President succeeded, along with our military almost two years, in killing Osama bin Laden. But Ayman al-Zawahiri is still at large, and he’s leading al Qaeda, and he’s been used in the number two role for a decade before that. And more generally, though, I think the President is taking a nonchalant attitude towards the risk we face in the world. If you look at his inauguration, he said almost nothing about foreign policy. He didn’t mention Iran getting a nuclear weapon, which is one of the most significant crisis we face in the world. And he just spoke generally of ending war. Wars aren’t ended, Hugh. Wars are won or lost, and right now, I worry that the President is not committed to winning the wars. And if you don’t win the war, then you by definition can’t win the peace, as he said in his inauguration.
HH: I have also been following the evolution of politics in Egypt, where the Sinai has basically become a lawless frontier with al Qaeda elements operating along the Israeli border, with numerous Salafist elements rising in both power and in the shadows. And I just don’t know…and Syria is a complete nightmare. Do you have any sense as to whether or not al Qaeda has effectively intervened and infiltrated the Syrian opposition?
TC: From open source reporting that I’ve read, it seems clear to me that there are at least some al Qaeda elements, yes, within the Syrian opposition. Not all of the opposition, not even necessarily the original opposition, but they are taking advantage of this, and specifically, AQI, al Qaeda in Iraq, the remnants there from when we withdrew all of our troops. And then also, as you say, there seem to be some connections not just between Syria and Egypt, but going on into Libya, Tunisia and Mali.
HH: I know you’re familiar with the book The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. And in fact, I’m reading his new book now on scientology. But I want to go back to the old book. There was a period of time up to 9/11, five years in fact, when no one knew that al Qaeda was forming and shaping, after the attacks on the embassies, after the Cole. No one was looking for it, and of course, 9/11 followed. Are we in a period of growing danger like that, Congressman Cotton?
TC: I do worry very much, Hugh, that we are. Yeah, sometimes I’m asked why should we care about Mali in 2013, and I say to those who ask, for the exact same reason we should have cared about Afghanistan in 2000, that if we don’t continue to pursue these radical, Islamic jihadists all around the world wherever we find them, then they can establish bases to project power, and ultimately attack the American homeland or our interests and allies abroad.
HH: Okay, and a last question, Tom Cotton, you’ve only been sworn in for a couple of weeks. Is it beginning to make sense to you, the rhythms of the House? Can you see what the next year is going to be like, vis-à-vis opposing the President on both his financial services policies and on his foreign affairs?
TC: Yes, I mean, we’ve got the majority in the House, but we’re the opposition party. Bill Kristol had a good editorial about that this week in the Weekly Standard, In Opposition. It’s a time to speak boldly on principle and take stands and force the President, and especially the Senate Democrats, to respond to those stands. I think the Republicans in the House are fully aligned around that goal as you saw today with the bill that we passed to extend the debt ceiling over the short term, so we can actually have the time to pass a ten year balanced budget, which is something the President didn’t mention at all in his speech, and something Harry Reid certainly doesn’t want to bring to the floor if his conduct over the past four years is any indication.
HH: And a last comment, I caught your introduction of the Secretary of State today, and you wished that she’d won the primary. Did anyone else notice that and draw its import?
TC: I didn’t get as many laughs in the room as I expected, but a colleague of mine pointed out that most of the people in that room are Obama Democrats.
HH: They did not appreciate it. Congressman Tom Cotton, thank you for joining us, well done today, and quite a debut on the national stage with a riveting exchange with Secretary of State Clinton. Thank you, Tom.
End of interview.