“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.”

–Sen.-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Nov. 30, 2014

We are a little late to this, and thus are following FactCheck.org’s look at the same quote. But it’s worth getting this on the record because Cotton is responding to a question about a campaign statement that previously had earned him Four Pinocchios.

Back in October, Cotton had declared, “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism.” He argued that they “could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”  But his only evidence were sketchy reports on the Internet, which were disputed by government officials.

When “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked whether this was “just campaign rhetoric,” and requested the evidence, Cotton responded with the comment above. Somehow the Sunni Islamic State mysteriously has disappeared from the narrative and been replaced by Hezbollah, the Shia militant group that is a key player in Lebanon’s politics. Meanwhile, the Mexican drug cartels have morphed into “locals in Mexico.”

Sunni, Shia, whatever. Does the shift make the statement more accurate?

The Facts

Cotton’s communications director, Caroline Rabbit, pointed The Fact Checker to three articles. See if you can follow the bouncing ball.

  • A 2011 CNN report about an alleged Iranian assassination-for-hire plot that targeted Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. The article quoted an unnamed senior official as saying that the suspect also discussed attacking Israeli and Saudi embassies in Washington, D.C. (The man at the center of the plot, Mansoor Arbabsiar, pleaded guilty in 2013 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.)
  • An Associated Press article that appeared in USA Today saying that Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah militants are “operating independently and together” and “escalating their activities around the world,” according to counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt.
  • A Washington Times article quoting Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about four men linked to a militant group who had been captured after slipping across the U.S. border after flying from Istanbul to Mexico City.

These are certainly more credible media sources than Cotton’s initial foray into this issue. But does it really add up?

The biggest hole is that Cotton said that Hezbollah is “under federal indictment collaborating with locals in Mexico to cross our borders, attack us here.” But the federal complaint made no mention of Hezbollah, just Iran’s Quds Force; neither did Arbabsiar’s guilty plea.

In the plea, Arbabsiar—an Iranian-American used car salesman– said he operated under the direction of the Iranian military. He thought he had recruited “a representative of a sophisticated and violent Latin American drug cartel” to murder the ambassador but that he turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Agency informant.

Rabbit noted that Levitt’s report discussed a coordinated “shadow war targeting Israeli, American, British, and Gulf States’ interests” between Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah, and also mentioned the Arbabsiar plot a page later, but no direct connect is made that the plot was connected to Hezbollah.

“It was a strictly Qods force plot and I mention it only on that context. I’ve had to clarify this to members of Congress and their staffs on several occasions,” Levitt said in an e-mail. “There was so much Hezbollah stuff going on at that time, but Hezbollah wasn’t involved in that op.”

As our colleague Joby Warrick reported in 2012 during a survey of Iranian-linked assassination plots:

U.S. officials say they are less convinced that top Iranian and Hezbollah leaders worked together to coordinate the attempted hits, noting that both groups have a long history of committing such acts on their own, and for their own purposes.
“The idea that Iran and Hezbollah might have worked together on these attempts is possible,” said a senior U.S. official who has studied the evidence, “but this conclusion is not definitive.”

Rabbit argued that Cotton’s statement was still was credible. “I still think his statement reflects the actual reality of the situation. The connection to Hezbollah is apparent to those familiar with the Quds Force and their activities or even just Iran in general,” she said, noting that the Quds Force was designated by the Treasury Department for supporting terror groups. She added that “Arbabsair thought he was collaborating with a drug cartel. That was his intention and what he went looking for.

The Pinocchio Test

At the very least, Cotton is being sloppy when he says Hezbollah was “under federal indictment.” While there are certainly disturbing connections between Hezbollah and the Quds Force, we know of no evidence that Hezbollah played a role in a rather strange (and unprofessional) assassination plot. As a senator, Cotton will need to be more careful about sticking to documented facts rather than engaging in speculation about particular operations, especially in the United States.

As a practical matter, Cotton’s sources now are more credible than in the campaign and his assertion is rooted in an actual legal case, however imprecisely described. That’s an improvement, but he still earns some Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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