Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton joined me this morning to discuss the Susan Rice blockbuster and this Wall Street Journal editorial:
HH: Joined by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Good morning, Senator Cotton, thank you for joining me.
TC: Good morning, Hugh, good to be on with you.
HH: How long have you been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee?
TC: About, a little over two years since I was elected, Hugh, in January, 2015.
HH: And you see raw intelligence in the SCIF that exists on the Hill, do you not?
TC: We do, Hugh. We see both finished products and occasionally raw intelligence product. We’ve seen more over the last few months because of our review of the intelligence supporting the intelligence community assessment that Russia was responsible for hacking and releasing those emails last year.
HH: In either the raw material or the finished product, you’ve seen masked names. Have you personally, Senator Cotton, ever asked for an unmasking?
TC: No, Hugh, I’ve never asked for an unmasked name, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine the circumstances you would in ordinary course of business outside of an exceptional review like we’re conducting now. Unmasking normally occurs by law enforcement or intelligence analysts who need it to conduct an investigation or to understand the raw intelligence.
HH: Can the Intel Committee subpoena witnesses?
TC: We haven’t in my time there, Hugh. Almost all of our witnesses come to cooperate voluntarily, whether they’re government officials or outside officials.
HH: Should the Intel Committee summon Susan Rice as a result of the story that Eli Lake broke yesterday? Mike Cernovich actually noted it on Sunday night. Eli Lake broke it yesterday. The Wall Street Journal editorializes about it today. Ought it to be the subject of a hearing, in your opinion?
TC: There’s no doubt about that, Hugh. Let me take a step back, though, and just try to bring a little clarity to this swirling mishmash of allegations into which we’re looking. There’s three big issue areas. The first, and by far the most developed is what Russia did last year, hacking into those email accounts and releasing those emails. The second is all of the wild-eyed, hair on fire, conspiracy theories you hear from Democrats and the media about Trump associates colluding with Russian intelligence officers. As Jim Clapper has said, as Michael Morell have said, there’s no evidence of that, but we’ll, you know, follow the facts where they lead us. The third issue set, which now has evidence of a clear crime, is what you’ve been discussing this morning, Hugh. It’s potential wrongdoing by Obama administration officials, probably senior political officials on the National Security Council and the Department of Justice into the handling of classified information, potential requests for unmasking the names of U.S. citizens without proper grounds, potential surveillance that’s not in accordance with law. That’s the only area where we know a crime has been committed, because David Ignatius wrote that column about Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador. And whoever provided that information to him acted outside of the law. And we should get to the bottom of that, just like we should get to the bottom of the first two issue sets.
HH: The Wall Street Journal has an editorial that concludes the news about Ms. Rice’s unmasking role raises a host of questions for the Senate and House Intelligence Committee to pursue. What specific surveillance information did Ms. Rice seek and why? Was this information related to President Obama’s decision in January to make it possible for raw intelligence to be widely disbursed throughout the government? Was this surveillance of Trump officials incidental collection gathered while listening to a foreigner? Or were some Trump officials directly targeted or reverse targeted? Do you agree with those questions, the necessity of their being asked, Senator Cotton?
TC: All serious questions in that editorial, along with Eli Lake’s reporting. And some of the claims that Chairman Nunes has raised, I think, are serious questions. I don’t know the factual basis behind them, yet, but that’s why the Intelligence Committee ought to review them, and will review them.
HH: Susan Rice appeared on PBS Newshour last month, and the Journal notes this as well, and asked whether Trump officials might have been surveilled. She said I know nothing about this, and I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that account today. Do you think she was lying at that point?
TC: Hugh, Susan rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy. Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it, whether it was these allegations of improper unmasking and potential improper surveillance, whether it was Benghazi, or many of the other fiascos over the eight years of the Obama administration. It’s hard, if Eli Lake’s reporting is correct, it’s hard to square his reporting with what Susan Rice said in that PBS interview.
HH: To confirm again, you’ve never requested an unmasking. Are you aware of any of your colleagues on the Intelligence Committee ever requesting unmasking?
TC: I’m not aware of that, Hugh.
HH: Why is that such a serious deal? Would you explain for the Steelers fans?
TC: Well, typically, we wouldn’t see transcripts of intercepts to begin with. Those transcripts are part of the raw intelligence that analysts at the NSA and the CIA and other intelligence agencies use to produce finished products that then we would review. Now if you really want to get into the factual basis for those finished products, that’s when you would do what we’re doing now, for instance, on the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia hacked into those emails. We’re looking at the raw intelligence in the same way a lawyer might review the record to see if the claims in a brief are supported. But that’s fairly unusual. Typically, we’re dealing with finished products, and we’re dealing with hearings where the authors or the sponsors of those products are testifying. So I’ve never had the occasion or need to request an unmasking of that, and it would be a pretty momentous action, because those minimization procedures are in place specifically to protect the privacy and the civil liberties of American citizens. Our intelligence surveillance activities are obviously very controversial. They’ve been more so over the last four years since the Edward Snowden disclosures. The last thing we need are political operatives in the White House fooling around with intelligence to make it harder to pass the laws we need to keep America safe.
HH: Last question, Senator Cotton, do you now want to go to the White House to see the logs of those people, including Susan Rice, who requested unmasking?
TC: I think it’s important that the entire Committee, not just the Gang of 8, review these documents, and that we get a comprehensive account of them from the sponsoring agencies.
HH: Senator Tom Cotton, thank you for joining me this morning, elucidating as always.
End of interview.