Trump’s Misplaced Love for Gitmo Trials

President Trump has brought the boorish bigotry of right-wing talk radio into the White House, as shown again by his ugly reaction to the terror attack on a New York bike path, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Donald Trump’s tweets in response to the terrorist attack along a bike path in Manhattan demonstrated some of what we already knew all too well about Trump, but they also reflected more widely shared and counterproductive American ways of thinking about counterterrorism. Among the Trumpian habits exhibited is the inclination to use any occasion, no matter how solemn or tragic, to excoriate or smear political opponents.

President Trump speaking at a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 1, 2017, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Trump’s right and son-in-law Jared Kushner seated in the background. (Screen shot from

In this case, instead of expressing solidarity with all citizens of his native New York City, Trump assailed Sen. Chuck Schumer for sponsorship of a 27-year-old visa program that had bipartisan support and under which the Uzbek perpetrator of this week’s attack had entered the United States.

Whatever “extreme vetting” Trump may have in mind for governing legal immigration, it is unlikely it would have eliminated the offender in the Manhattan incident, Sayfullo Saipov. When he came to the United States in 2010, Saipov was a hotel accountant showing no radical or violent streak. It evidently was only after living in the United States and experiencing disappointment in finding desired employment that Saipov evolved into an extremist who, according to those who knew him, became heated when he discussed American policies toward Israel.

Saipov’s Uzbek origin also highlights how disconnected from actual patterns of terrorist threat have been the various versions of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. The arbitrary list of countries has never included Uzbekistan. Perhaps Central Asia is just too far removed, compared to the Middle East, from the preoccupations and prejudices that underlay the devising of the ban for it to have made the cut.

Trump also quickly maligned the U.S. criminal justice system as a “joke” and “laughingstock” and called for the suspect to be sent to the military detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba. Such a blurt reflected complete ignorance of what has and has not worked in bringing terrorists to justice.Trump’s later backing away from his statement about using Guantanamo must have come from aides confronting him with how far his earlier statement was removed from reality. Civilian federal courts have proven to be efficient and effective as well as fair in handling terrorism cases.

According to Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at the University of Texas, prosecution of terrorist cases in those courts has resulted in more than 600 convictions since 2001 with almost no reversals upon appeal. The Southern District of New York, which presumably would be the venue for a trial of Saipov, has an especially long and impressive record of handling even the most sensitive and difficult terrorism cases.

The Bumbling Gitmo Trials

In contrast, the military tribunal system at Guantanamo is still having trouble getting its act together after years of fits and starts. This past week, a trial there of accused perpetrators of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 was thrown into disarray amid a dispute over legal representation of the defendants.

Sayfullo Saipov, alleged terrorist in the Oct. 31, 2017 truck attack on a Manhattan bike path.

This spectacle featured an Air Force colonel (the trial judge) sentencing a Marine Corps brigadier general (the head of legal defense at Guantanamo) to 21 days confinement and a $1,000 fine for refusing to obey an order of the judge regarding configuration of the defense team.  The brigadier general — John Baker, the second-highest ranking lawyer in the Marine Corps — has been unsparing in his own criticism of the tribunal process at Guantanamo.

Last year he said, “Put simply, the military commissions in their current state are a farce. Instead of being a beacon for the rule of law, the Guantanamo Bay military commissions have been characterized by delay, government misconduct and incompetence, and even more delay.”

As is true of so many other rhetorical excesses of Donald Trump, the rhetoric plays to misconceptions and prejudices that had already gained wider currency — which is why, of course, Trump uses such rhetoric and why it was effective enough to win him the presidency. (Trump was not the only political figure who spoke favorably about sending Saipov to Guantanamo; so did Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.) The principal misconceptions and prejudices involving terrorism to which Trump’s rhetoric about the New York attack appeals include the following.

One is the notion that terrorist violence against Americans is overwhelmingly a problem with foreigners and not with other Americans. This has led to conflation of immigration issues with counterterrorism issues, added respectability to a preoccupation with building walls, and diverted attention and resources from security measures that are not border security measures.

A related notion is that terrorism is overwhelmingly a problem with certain foreigners, and especially Muslim ones. This does not square with the pattern of violence, and of political violence, in the United States since 9/11.

A further notion is that terrorism is a problem with a fixed set of bad guys, the elimination or exclusion of whom would solve the problem. This ignores how once-peaceful people like Saipov can come to adopt extreme tactics such as political violence. It also ignores the issues and grievances that may lead people to make that transition.

A broad, underlying misconception inheres in the “war on terror” label, with everything that implies regarding the militarization of counterterrorism. This not only leads to anomalies, such as colonels trying to order generals what to do, in attempting to put justice into a military framework when it does not fit. It also has led to military expeditions overseas that have stoked anti-U.S. terrorism more than they have diminished it, through the knock-on effects of collateral damage and perceived affronts to someone else’s homeland.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

19 comments for “Trump’s Misplaced Love for Gitmo Trials

  1. mike k
    November 6, 2017 at 20:58

    We are all screwed anyhow. Bob Hunziker tells us a way that has happened that you may not have noticed: the ecosystem we all depend on is collapsing.

    I live in the forest, and you don’t see near as many insects anymore. And the birds that used to make such a joyful racket in the early morning are silent now. Rachel was ahead of her times.

    • mike k
      November 6, 2017 at 21:01

      The frogs that used to cover our little
      road when it rained, are all gone now.
      I miss them – a lot.

    • Sam F
      November 6, 2017 at 22:28

      I’m sorry to hear of all those changes, Mike. There are also temporary variations among species that return after a while. We have a different small mammal staking out our territory every few years: a raccoon family one year, then woodchucks, a fox, a mink, an opossum, a porcupine, and then raccoon again. Same with the insects and birds: dragonflies eat the mosquitoes for a few years, then swallows move in and eat them both, then crows and mosquitoes, etc. The biting insects are never in short supply, though, and the lower species behave far better than the primates.

      • mike k
        November 7, 2017 at 08:06

        Thanks Sam. But the ecosystem is collapsing. This is supported by scientific studies. Of course my small locale doesn’t prove anything, but large studies tell us that the ecosystem changes that are happening are global with local variations. The same is true for climate change. We have had some of the best weather I can remember here in Kentucky this year, but elsewhere has been another story. Climate change deniers would like to ascribe the current weather situations around the world to normal fluctuations and cycles, but the data shows a consistent pattern of abnormal warmth opposed to historic patterns.

        As much as I would enjoy finding some consolation from these grim realities of worldwide pollution and ecosystem collapse, such hopes would be ephemeral and illusory.

  2. mike k
    November 6, 2017 at 20:47

    Donald Trump is a very evil, disgusting person.

    • mike k
      November 6, 2017 at 20:49

      I will have to pray for the Donald, otherwise I could end up hating him.

  3. mike k
    November 6, 2017 at 20:44

    What do you expect of Trump? He’s told us he loves to torture people. He just likes to see people suffer. He’s a perfect bully – just right for the U S of A. Just the right guy to beat up on poor people, Mexicans, Muslims – and just anybody that doesn’t do what he tells them to do. Watch out North Koreans!

  4. November 6, 2017 at 10:36

    Another misconception about Terrorism is:

    They hate us for our freedoms. No connection to actual policies and certainly not to Israel.

  5. tina
    November 5, 2017 at 23:44

    guess what is funny? Paul Manafort and his lawyers are asking for a different bail term. Since when does an accused person get to propose their bail conditions to a judge? Oh , yes since money helps. And Terrorism is only if one is brown or black, not like that white ex air force guy who shot a lot of people in a church. Justice, it is called money and skin color. I bet that guy in Texas was a “lone wolf”
    just like that guy in Las Vegas .My prayers and thoughts don’t do shit. Gun control could help. Peace, and stop the crazy white people who have all the guns from using them.

    • Seer
      November 6, 2017 at 07:24

      Crazy isn’t the sole domain of “white” people. And any resultant deaths from said “crazy” people isn’t only by way of guns.

      Saipov didn’t use a gun. Was/is he “crazy?”

      No, I don’t believe it is the killers who are “crazy,” abominable, yes, but “crazy” perhaps not.

      “Crazy” would be believing that a society that spends $800+ billion per year on its military, has 800+ military installations outside of its borders, is perpetually engaged in wars and the killing of innocents/civilians on a regular basis, promotes hero worship of military personnel, and on an on… would NOT produce such people as “crazy white people with guns.”

      • Sam F
        November 6, 2017 at 22:36

        True, our popular “literature” has abandoned moral education for demoralization to promote military recruiting. And of course those who kill physically are a tiny fraction of those who kill economically, or of those who destroy lives in the vain hope of freeing themselves from economic and cultural slavery.

  6. john wilson
    November 5, 2017 at 14:37

    Trump tweeted that he wants the death penalty for the terrorist in question thereby making certain that he won’t receive the death penalty because his lawyers will challenge this as unfair and prejudicial to the man’s case.

  7. fudmier
    November 5, 2017 at 13:16

    much gratitude for the above comments
    purge in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon PM too (forced resignation). interesting.

    divide and conquer gitmo.. many sides increases the read pressure on propaganda its feedback part of the benefits of spy on every thing everyone does .Issue awareness essential requirement to effective D&C strategy.
    Americans pay the salaries of those who sit around dream up ways to promote propaganda
    by using D&C strategies help to increase read and recall pressure.on the video entranced barnyard stock

    • November 5, 2017 at 13:53

      fudmier,…the substance of your link could have significant ramifications,…thanks

  8. Mild-ly - Facetious
    November 5, 2017 at 12:39
  9. Don Bacon
    November 5, 2017 at 11:51

    Trump’s love of Gitmo is a sop to his generals. The Gitmo prison population mostly consists of innocents rounded up and abused to show that the the US military is “doing something about terrorism,” and so there can never be real trials requiring actual evidence as ordered by the Supreme Court years ago. Real terrorists, terrorism being a crime, belong in the US criminal justice system which while faulty is way above anything at Gitmo.

    • GMC
      November 5, 2017 at 12:13

      Sometimes Don, I think Gitmo is just a military scenario in order to make the people see only Gitmo, while it hides its dozens of other illegal prison sites worldwide. And those other sites are up and running because the countries let the US and Nato keep those torture chambers as long as the dollar bribes or blackmail continue. Most of the Americans have no clue how many US military prisons, bio-warfare labs, nukes { minis and other hybrids}, proxy armies, and other war arrangements are out there. There are hundreds according to the Clandestine communities that are squawking the 10-20s { locations}.

      • Seer
        November 6, 2017 at 07:52

        Tends to raise this question: If one were actually a terrorist and were to see incarceration as a possible deterrent, which would hold more sway, Gitmo (where you would be held indefinitely, far from any homelands), or one of the other gulags (no idea what goes on as far as detention times go; but, they’re likely close to, if not IN, the “terrorist’s” homeland).

    • Sam F
      November 5, 2017 at 16:40

      While Gitmo is clearly a charade after 17 years for a criminal trial, the article laughably expresses a childish confidence in the other federal courts as “efficient and effective as well as fair in handling terrorism cases.” This is exactly equivalent to an unquestioning confidence in Santa Claus. It is unlikely that there is anything “fair” or “impressive” about their handling terrorism cases, unless one presumes the accused to be guilty.

      In the criminal courts well over 95 percent are sentenced by plea bargaining with zero evidence. In NY in particular, the main crime lab was shut down a few years ago upon discovery that nearly every one of its 20,000+ lab results had been faked up to accord with a desired result. In the civil courts, where I know 30-35 federal judges, every one is a dedicated opponent of constitutional rights for anyone but the rich and well connected. The law and the Constitution mean absolutely nothing to federal judges, and nearly all state judges, and anyone who doubts this needs to look more closely at the problem.

      Here is a good article by Paul Roberts on the corruption of the criminal justice system:

      Here is an article on judicial corruption and the measures needed to correct it:

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