RICHMOND — The husband of Democratic congressional hopeful Leslie Cockburn weighed in Thursday on one of the more unexpected controversies of the campaign — her suggestion that she has more credibility on Afghanistan than her Republican rival because she was on the ground there as a journalist while he, an Air Force intelligence officer, planned bombing raids over the country from a distant island.
Cockburn made the claim during a debate Monday night with Republican Denver Riggleman, who said that as chief of intelligence for the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, he planned the first bombing raids over Afghanistan after 9/11 from Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean.
Andrew Cockburn, a fellow journalist who has sometimes worked with his wife, took to Twitter to push back against Republican National Committee spokesman Garren Shipley’s comment that “Denver Riggleman went overseas to fight and risk his life for his country. @Leslie Cockburn went overseas to get better ratings.”
In response, Andrew Cockburn tweeted: “ ‘Risked his life.’ How? Snorkeling off Diego Garcia? We need specifics.”
He soon deleted the tweet.
Leslie Cockburn’s campaign manager, Louise Bruce, declined to comment.
Cockburn and Riggleman are two political newcomers vying for the seat being vacated by Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who announced in late May that he is an alcoholic and would not seek reelection.
Virginia’s largely rural 5th District, stretching from Northern Virginia exurbs to the North Carolina border, has been solidly Republican. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 11 points in 2016, even as Clinton carried the state by more than five points. Amid a blue wave the next year that gave Democrat Ralph Northam a nine-point win in the governor’s race, the district favored Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report says the race leans Republican.
Cockburn and Riggleman met for the fourth of their five debates Monday at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville.
Riggleman, who served 11 years in the Air Force and works as a Defense Department contractor, brought up his military service when asked whether it was in the United States’ best interest to have troops in Afghanistan. He began by noting that 17 years had passed since he had planned the first bombing raids.
“I started mission planning those bombing runs on October 2nd, , so as a DOD guy, as somebody’s who’s been in harm’s way and somebody who’s seen others in harm’s way, I think there comes a time that we have to get out,” he said.
Because of the way the debate was structured, Cockburn was asked about another topic, but she talked about Afghanistan instead.
“I covered three different wars in Afghanistan,” she said. “I covered the mujahideen war. I was in Kabul when the Taliban came in. And I was there during the American war. I will say, talking about the planned bombing raids right at the beginning of the war, Denver was not in Afghanistan. He was on Diego Garcia, which is 3,000 miles away from Afghanistan.”
She went on to say that now-retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, not Riggleman, did the planning — and that the raids were “very unsuccessful.”
Deptula said in an interview Tuesday that there were “multiple levels of planning” — ranging from overarching operational goals or laying out tactical details such as where and when aircraft get refueled — so Cockburn and Riggleman “both may be correct.”
But he called her assertion that the raids were unsuccessful “absolute nonsense.”
Cockburn doubled down on her claim in a tweet Tuesday, citing an article by Michael O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Fact-check: The initial bombing of Afghanistan hit the ‘planned targets’ (fixed Taliban targets) with little effect on Taliban forces,” she wrote. “See Michael O’Hanlon, Foreign Affairs May-June 2002.”
O’Hanlon said in an email that he was not immediately available for an interview.
Cockburn is a former “60 Minutes” producer who also worked for networks, “Frontline” and Vanity Fair magazine. She wrote a memoir, “Looking for Trouble: One Woman, Six Wars and a Revolution.”