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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cotton’s Porous Border Story

Rep. Tom Cotton distorted the facts of a 2011 failed terrorist plot to make his case that the U.S. border with Mexico is “open” and “defenseless.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cotton said Hezbollah collaborated “with locals in Mexico to cross our borders” in an attempt to “attack us here.” But Hezbollah was not involved in the plot and border security was not an issue. A naturalized U.S. citizen living in Texas was sentenced to 25 years in prison on May 30, 2013 for conspiring to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. His co-conspirator was an Iranian-based member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The only connection to Mexico: the naturalized U.S. citizen sentenced in the case traveled to Mexico to hire a hit man who turned out to be an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Cotton, who defeated Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor in November, warned during his campaign about the potential for terrorists crossing the Mexico border to attack the U.S. But on “Meet the Press” Cotton did not mention the terrorist threat when discussing the executive actions taken by President Obama on immigration. Instead, Cotton criticized the president’s actions on economic grounds, saying they would “make it easier for illegal immigrants to get jobs, not for working families to get jobs.”

“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Cotton if his warning about terrorists crossing the border was “just campaign rhetoric.”

Cotton, “Meet the Press,” Nov. 30: No, Hezbollah has tried to launch terrorist attacks right here in Washington D.C. They’re under federal indictment collaborating with locals in Mexico to cross our borders, attack us here. As long as our border is open and it’s defenseless, then it’s not just an immigration issue, it’s a national security issue.

And we know that these drug cartels in Mexico are focused primarily on power and profit. They’ll branch out into any activity if it brings them more money and helps them consolidate control. That’s yet another reason why we have to get control of our border.

Cotton’s office referred us to an Oct. 11, 2011 CNN article about a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir. But the article makes no mention of Hezbollah.

CNN reported that it was an “Iranian plot” carried out by Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who held both United States and Iranian passports, and Gholam Shakuri, an Iran-based member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Both men also discussed possible future attacks against the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Washington, D.C., CNN reported. The article and the Oct. 11, 2011 federal complaint filed against both men make no mention of Hezbollah.

Cotton’s office accurately noted that there are “links between Iran and Hezbollah,” citing a USA Today story that carried the headline “Report: Iran, Hezbollah terror threat rising.” But as that article noted, Iran and Hezbollah have been “operating both independently and together.” This has been described by federal officials as a case of Iran operating independently, although the Iranian government claims it was not involved.

More relevant to Cotton’s point about border security, neither Hezbollah nor anyone else was “collaborating with locals in Mexico to cross our borders.” Quite the opposite, Arbabsiar — a naturalized U.S. citizen — crossed the border into Mexico in search of a hit man.

As the federal complaint says, Arbabsiar met in Mexico “on a number of occasions” with a man that he thought was an associate of a Mexican drug cartel. It turns out, though, that the man was a paid DEA informant. The DEA source was initially arrested on drug charges but those charges were dropped in exchange for becoming a paid informant. Using money approved by Shakuri, Arbabsiar paid the DEA source $100,000 in the summer of 2011 as a down payment for agreeing to kill the ambassador at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.

On Sept. 28, 2011, Arbabsiar flew to Mexico to meet the DEA source but he was denied entry and flew to New York City, where he was arrested by federal law enforcement officials.

We are not minimizing the potential for terrorists to attack within the United States. But Cotton distorts the facts of this case and misuses it as evidence that the U.S. border with Mexico is “open” and “defenseless.”

— Eugene Kiely and Alexander Nacht