Intelligence veterans blast Tom Cotton as pro-torture, 'partisan,' and 'wholly unfit' to lead the CIA

  • President Donald Trump is weighing a national security shakeup that could involve replacing CIA Director Mike Pompeo with Arkansas Sen.Tom Cotton.
  • Several CIA veterans reacted with alarm to the news on Thursday, characterizing Cotton as too partisan and inexperienced to lead the agency and expressing concern over his views on torture.
  • "It is bothersome that, so far as one can tell, he knows absolutely nothing about the intelligence community," one former CIA official said.

Several CIA veterans reacted with alarm on Thursday to news that Republican Sen. Tom Cotton could replace Mike Pompeo as head of the intelligence agency within the next two months.

It is unclear whether Cotton, a combat veteran and Senate freshman, would accept the position if nominated by President Donald Trump. Cotton's spokesman said on Thursday that his "focus is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.”

But Trump's chief of staff John Kelly is reportedly spearheading a national security shake-up that would involve installing Pompeo as secretary of state and Cotton as CIA director. Rex Tillerson, whose leadership of the State Department has been criticized by both career department employees and the president, would be ousted.

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Senator Tom Cotton
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Senator Tom Cotton
HOT SPRINGS, AR - APRIL 26: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton looks for questions in a crowd of supporters at a Republican headquarters office April 26, 2014 in Hot Springs, Ark. Sen. Pryor is in a tight reelection campaign with Republican opponent , U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. (Photo by Stephen B. Thornton for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks during a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 30: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., speaks with Conner Cadle, age 6, of Weiner, Ark., at the Jonesboro Victory Office before helping phone bank to get out the vote on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 in Jonesboro, Ark. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., poses for photos after speaking at a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 31: Rep. Tom Cotton, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., poses for photos after speaking at a campaign rally in Mountain View, Ark., on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) Senator-Elect, appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday Nov. 30, 2014. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 6: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., his wife Anna and Vice President Joe Biden participate in the re-enactment swearing-in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC MARCH 11: Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is photographed in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Cotton drafted the letter to Iran signed by GOP Senators. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 13: Freshman GOP Senators pose for a group photo with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., in front of the Ohio Clock in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. From left are Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., David Perdue, R-Ga., Michael Rounds, R-S.D., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Steve Daines, R-Mont., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Dan Sullivan, R-AK, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and James Lankford, R-Okla. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 20: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (L) speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R) and John McCain (not seen) in Kiev, Ukraine, on June 20, 2015. (Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Republican Party opened its national convention Monday, kicking off a four-day political jamboree that will anoint billionaire Donald Trump as its presidential nominee. Some 2,000 delegates descended on a tightly secured Cleveland arena where Trump's wife will take center stage later in the day to make a personal pitch to voters that her billionaire husband is the best candidate for the White House. / AFP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, right, stands inside the Quicken Loans Arena 'The Q' ahead of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Sunday, July 17, 2016. A key Republican National Convention committee crushed a long-shot attempt by rogue delegates to block Donald Trump's nomination, as internal strife that's roiled the party for much of the past decade was on full display Thursday amid fights over governing rules for the next four years. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 1: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., participates in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's media availability in the U.S. Capitol with Republican members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs and Armed Services Committees to discuss cloture vote on the Milcon/VA appropriations bill cloture vote and next week's National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, waves before speaking during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, July 18, 2016. Republican factions trying to stop Donald Trump's nomination noisily disrupted a vote on party convention rules, displaying the fissures in the party on the first day of its national convention. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, speaks during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, July 18, 2016. Republican factions trying to stop Donald Trump's nomination noisily disrupted a vote on party convention rules, displaying the fissures in the party on the first day of its national convention. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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"This is an awful appointment," said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, of Cotton's potential nomination. "Sen.Cotton is a highly ideological individual who is not well-suited to lead an agency part of whose core mission is objective analysis."

Pillar pointed to a letter Cotton wrote to top Iranian leaders in March 2015 warning them against striking a nuclear deal with then-President Barack Obama. The letter was signed by 47 Senate Republicans and infuriated the White House, which viewed it as an inappropriate congressional intervention in sensitive diplomatic negotiations. 

"We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei," the letter read.

"It's hard to imagine someone who would do something like that, something so contrary to accepted foreign policy procedure, providing objective leadership on issues related to Iran," Pillar said.

Former CIA analyst Ned Price, who served as a National Security Council spokesman under Obama, shared concerns over the future of the US's relationship with Iran if placed in the hands of Pompeo at the State Department and Cotton at the CIA. 

"I certainly think Cotton will continue much of what Pompeo started," Price said, referring to a common perception of Pompeo's CIA leadership as partisan and motivated, at least in part, by loyalty to Trump. 

"And with these two at the helm of these institutions, it's much more likely that we'll find ourselves moving towards regime change with Iran," Price added. "The Iran deal is toast — that's a given — but the march to war will become much more viable. It's something they've coordinated on even in their current posts, and it surely will pick up if this comes to pass."

As the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin noted in a lengthy profile of Cotton published earlier this month, undermining and the Iran nuclear deal in an attempt to wholly dismantle it has been a touchstone of Cotton's young Senate career. (He was elected in 2015.)

"I told the President in July that he shouldn't certify that Iran was complying with the agreement,” Cotton told Toobin. "Putting aside the issue of technical compliance or noncompliance, it's clear that the agreement is not in our national interest."

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CIA director Mike Pompeo
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CIA director Mike Pompeo

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mike Pompeo (L) is sworn in as CIA Director by Vice President Mike Pence (R) as wife Susan Pompeo (2nd L) looks on at Eisenhower Executive Office Building January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pompeo was confirmed for the position by the Senate this evening.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., right, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, conducts a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, June 28, 2016, to announce the Committee's report on the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., also appears. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director nominee for President-elect Donald Trump, swears in to a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Pompeo is seeking to reassure senators that he can shift from an outspoken policymaker to an objective spy chief if confirmed.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a meeting with CIA Director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., in his Capitol office on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) arrives to testify before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination of to be become director of the CIA at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) finishes swearing in Mike Pompeo, flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo, to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the vice president's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo gets a hug from supporter Jennifer O'Connor after arriving at the Sedgwick County Republican headquarters at Market Centre in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

(Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images)

Adam Schiff (D-CA) left, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) center, and moderator Chuck Todd, right, appear on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.

(William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) listens as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) speaks during his confirmation hearing to be the director of the CIA before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mr. Pompeo is a former Army officer who graduated first in his class from West Point.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., speaks during the news conference before a group of House Republican freshmen walked to the Senate to deliver a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The letter called on the Senate to pass a long term continuing resolution with spending cuts.

(Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

US Congressman Mike Pompeo (C), R-Kansas, sits in the dark after a power failure with US Senator Pat Roberts (L), a former Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former US Senator Bob Dole (R), R-Kansas, as he prepares to testify before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 12, 2017, on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Trump administration.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., center, nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is introduced by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., right, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., during Pompeo's Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, January 12, 2017. The hearing was moved from Hart Building due to a peer outage.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Incoming Trump administration cabinet secretary nominees including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (L-R), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director nominee Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis arrive for meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mike Pompeo (2nd L), flanked by his wife Susan Pompeo (2nd R) and their son Nick Pompeo (R), signs his affidavit of appointment after being sworn in as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) in Pence's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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Lack of experience working in intelligence

Beyond Cotton's position on the Iran deal, however, some CIA veterans are nervous about his lack of experience working with the intelligence community.

"He seems bright enough," said former CIA counsel Bob Deitz. "He went to my favorite law school. But it is bothersome that, so far as one can tell, he knows absolutely nothing about the intelligence community. The CIA is not an easy agency to lead because of its varied missions. Of course he may be a quick learner. I hope that is true."

While serving in the Army in 2006, Cotton wrote a letter to three New York Times reporters who broke a story about a classified program run by the CIA and the Treasury Department that tracked the financing of terror networks. He told the reporters that they should be in jail for publishing the details of the program.

"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," Cotton wrote. "By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars."

As The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman noted, Cotton was "plainly wrong about the law."

"Leaking classified material is criminal; publishing it is not," Ackerman wrote.

Former congressional intelligence staffer Mieke Eoyang, now the vice president for the national security program at the think tank Third Way, said on Twitter that one upside to Cotton running the CIA is that he would be forced to suppress his partisan outbursts.

"He'd stop organizing counterproductive Senate letters. He'd have to shut up about his successes. He'd have to take the hit for any intelligence failures," Eoyang said. She added that "classified information restrictions limit what he can say/do."

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CIA -- Central Intelligence Agency
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CIA -- Central Intelligence Agency
An aerial view of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, U.S. on January 18, 2008. To match Special Report USA-CIA-BRENNAN/ REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo
LANGLEY, VA - JANUARY 21: The logo of the CIA is seen during a visit ofUS President Donald Trump the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia . Trump spoke with about 300 people in his first official visit with a government agaency. (Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an independent agency responsible for providing national security intelligence to senior United States policymakers.
LANGLEY VA, MAY 21: The CIA Memorial Wall in the lobby of the CIA Headquarters has stars signifying the agents and contractors killed in the line of duty working for the CIA. The headquarters is in Langley VA, May 21, 2014. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 19: Aerial of C.I.A. Headquarters in Virginia (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 07: Aerial view of CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Wall inside the CIA honors members of the CIA who died in the service of their country. (Photo by Larry Downing/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Technician working on a tape recording inside the CIA. (Photo by Larry Downing/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Library with all international newspapers inside the CIA. (Photo by Larry Downing/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
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Controversial views on torture

Others, like longtime CIA intelligence officer Glenn Carle, are concerned about Cotton's views on torture. Cotton told CNN last November that "waterboarding isn't torture," arguing that "Donald Trump is a pretty tough guy and he's ready to make those tough calls" when it comes to the use of controversial and extreme interrogation methods. 

In 2015, Cotton said that "the only problem with Guantánamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now."

"We should be sending more terrorists there," Cotton said in reference to the infamous detention facility. "As far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they can't do that, they can rot in Guantánamo Bay."

Carle, who wrote a book about his involvement in the interrogation of a man believed in the early 2000's to be a top Al-Qaeda member, said that Cotton is "wholly unfit" to be CIA director.

"It will be difficult" for the CIA's career employees "to work under someone who is a zealot and thinks that torture is not torture," Carle said. "Cotton is an ideologue and a partisan, and his views are not only out of the mainstream — they challenge tenets of our core American values."

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