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Watch: GOP Senator harangues baffled Pentagon official about Gitmo in bizarre rant

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) gave an impassioned and at moments bizarre speech in a Thursday hearing, calling for the indefinite expansion of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, dismissing clear evidence that the prison helped al-Qaeda recruit, and even that many of its inmates have been innocent.

The bombastic rhetorical style and hawkish language are typical of Cotton, one of the GOP's leading young lights on foreign policy.

Cotton set up his address by asking Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon, who was testifying, a bizarre question: "How many recidivists are there at Guantanamo Bay right now?"

Recidivist refers at someone who reoffends after release. And no one currently at Guantanamo Bay has previously been released from it, so the answer to the question was zero.

Cotton continued, asking McKeon, "How many detainees at Guantanamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti-American incitement?" He answered his own question: "None, because they're detained."

Cotton then asked, "How many detainees were at Guantanamo Bay on September 11, 2001?"

The answer, of course, was zero; the facility had not yet been established. Cotton argued that this fact disproved the theory, held by many terrorism analysts, that Guantanamo provides propaganda for terrorists. Because terrorism existed before Gitmo did, he implied, therefore Gitmo could not inspire terrorism. "Islamic terrorists don't need an excuse to attack us," he said.

This proves, according to Cotton, that Obama's case for eliminating the detention center "is not a security decision, it's a political decision based on a promise the president made during his campaign."

"The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty cells," Cotton continued. "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."

mckeon correct

This is how McKeon and people behind him looked during Cotton's questioning. (CSPAN)

Cotton's argument — because terrorism existed before Guantanamo Bay, therefore Guantanamo cannot help terrorists recruit new fighters — is a logical nightmare. Clearly it's possible for terrorists to recruit on more than one thing.

Indeed, there's overwhelming evidence that Guantanamo — as a symbol of the American torture regime — helps al-Qaeda recruit.

"The longer it stays open the more cost it will have in U.S. lives," Matthew Alexander, a former US Air Force officer who interrogated suspected terrorists in Iraq, wrote in 2012.

As for "rotting in hell," a significant percentage of Guantanamo inmates over the course of the prison's existence have been found innocent of any connection to terrorism. Even now, 54 of the remaining 122 inmates have been cleared for release for the US government.

Still, this kind of stunt is probably great politics. Cotton's initial rise to prominence, in 2006, came after he penned a letter slamming the New York Times for revealing a secret US spying program targeting terrorist financing. "By the time we return home," he wrote to the Times reporters, "maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars."

When his letter was published on the conservative blog Powerline, it went whatever the 2006 equivalent of viral was. Cotton, a lieutenant in Baghdad at the time, became a conservative media darling. Now he's a successful politician, elected to the Senate before his 38th birthday, who's made national security his top issue.

So it's almost irrelevant whether Cotton's arguments on Guantanamo actually make sense. This kind of messaging has, for a while now, been his meal ticket.

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