Trump Resumes Abuse of ‘Terror List’

The U.S. government has long abused its “terrorism list” by including disfavored nations while leaving off “allies” implicated in 9/11 and other terror attacks, a practice President Trump has resumed, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Trump’s placement of North Korea on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism continues a manipulation, by several administrations, of this list for reasons other than terrorism. Neither an earlier removal of North Korea from this list (by the George W. Bush administration in 2008) nor Trump’s return of North Korea to the list this week had anything to do with any changes in North Korea’s conduct as far as terrorism is concerned.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The Bush administration’s delisting was part of an unsuccessful effort to do something about Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The Trump administration has seized upon relisting is supposedly another form of pressure on North Korea, with the concern again centered on nuclear weapons.

Rationales being voiced for the newest move show what a stretch it is from what are supposed to be the criteria, defined by statute, for placement on the state sponsor list. Some defenders of the move refer to North Korean actions three decades ago.

Pyongyang really was doing international terrorism in the 1980s, mainly aimed against South Korea. It was responsible for a bomb in Rangoon that killed several visiting members of the South Korean cabinet in 1983. It planted a bomb in a Korean Air civilian airliner in 1987, killing more than a hundred. But North Korea got out of international terrorism in subsequent years, with the hope of gaining some degree of international political rehabilitation. In terms of the legal standards for remaining on the state sponsor list, the delisting of North Korea in 2008 was overdue.

A more recent North Korean-perpetrated incident was the assassination in Malaysia this February of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. This killing, being performed clandestinely on foreign soil, technically meets the definition of international terrorism. And it is yet another example of repugnant and brutal behavior by the Pyongyang regime. But it had nothing to do with any campaign of terrorism that poses a threat to anyone other than members of Kim Jong Un’s own family or regime whom he perceives as a possible threat to his rule.

Past Practice

Other countries besides North Korea have been the subject of misuse of the state sponsor list. The Reagan administration took Iraq off the list as part of its tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. The George H.W. Bush administration returned Iraq to the list after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Neither move had to do with any change in Iraqi behavior regarding international terrorism.

President Reagan meets with Vice President George H.W. Bush on Feb. 9, 1981. (Photo credit: Reagan Presidential Library.)

Cuba remained on the list, for reasons involving anti-Castro domestic U.S. politics, long after it had ceased doing anything that could be construed as international terrorism.

Barack Obama made more of an honest effort than most other U.S. presidents to respect the legal criteria associated with the state sponsor list. The belated removal of Cuba from the list was part of this. The Obama administration reportedly considered relisting North Korea but refrained because it could not identify a sound legal rationale for doing so.

Other administrations’ misuse of the state sponsor list has been a sloppy way of expressing disapproval of regimes they didn’t like. The sloppiness hides how such regimes may exhibit multiple forms of objectionable conduct, each posing its own problems and each of which can be addressed through different means. Blurring everything together into a miasma of undifferentiated rogue state behavior undermines the possibility of using diplomacy and carefully crafted incentives to ameliorate any one form of objectionable conduct, be it terrorism or weapons proliferation or something else, even if we can’t solve every problem we have with a regime.

Misusing the list of state sponsors of terrorism sends the message that the United States does not care all that much about terrorism itself. It undermines the credibility of efforts that really are focused on countering terrorism. Most fundamentally, it diminishes the incentive of the targeted regime to get out or stay out of international terrorism. If the North Korean regime sees that it is going to be branded a state sponsor of terrorism regardless of what it is doing terrorism-wise, it has that much less disincentive against sliding back into the reprehensible things it was doing in the 1980s.

This is one form of poor statesmanship in which Trump is not alone. His move regarding the state sponsor list does indicate a shortfall in careful and creative thinking about ways to counter the North Korean nuclear challenge.

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.)

31 comments for “Trump Resumes Abuse of ‘Terror List’

  1. MarcB
    November 27, 2017 at 05:05

    Many of us non Americans , happen to believe the United States is THE terrorist State par excellence as well as the biggest sponsor of State Terrorism by other States,with some average garden variety perpetuated for good measure …. despite all of the marvelous culture the US has generated , the great poetry, Music, Films, Social Movements and the many wonderful Americans , its also a blight on human progress, and regrettably for those in power, we in the rest of the world would be better off if it ceased being an Empire… of course the problem is the Vicious form of Capitalism which American Empire is mutating into a living hell for most of the Planets population ….. the real coup has been linking Democracy to Capitalism and convincing the world that they are irrevocably connected……

    That is what we are dealing with, vicious crony Capitalism , Plunder legalized by the Lords of this World ….. A System which will ultimately destroy us if we don’t act…. i believe that is the main reason net neutrality is almost gone…. the Plunderers are frightened of the overthrow of a mercenary palpably unjust system , and most of us have little but the tools of social Media at our disposal with which to rebel…

  2. backwardsevolution
    November 23, 2017 at 12:12

    Might be a lot going on behind the scenes:

    “Yesterday Putin introduced Assad to the military commanders who are most responsible for the stabilization of his country. Syria as a political unit has survived.

    Saudi Arabia’s old guard are imprisoned, impoverished and losing influence around the world by the minute. Israel’s neoconservative government, led by madman Benjamin Netanyahu, is fulminating impotently at the turn of events, and, of course, ISIS has all but been wiped out in both Syria and Iraq.

    The U.S. continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth, allowing some ISIS members cover to escape to be used again another day, presumably against Iran and/or Lebanon, while taking credit for ISIS’s collapse and the capture of Raqqa.

    This reflects the deep-seated issues within the vast U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence communities and the difficulties President Trump is having bringing these disparate groups to heel while not appearing weak and ineffectual.

    You need only look at the odd event over the weekend of military helicopters arriving at the CIA’s headquarters at Langley to know that, at a minimum, there is an internal war occurring within the U.S. government.

    The best explanation I’ve heard (and this is by no means a corroborated fact) is that the U.S. military put on a show of force against Obama administration hold-overs in the CIA still operating its terrorist proxies in Syria. And that these operations are in direct conflict with U.S. military goals there.

    If that is the case then Putin is right to simply ignore the Americans and move policy talks forward at an accelerated rate, ignoring the talks in Geneva and giving Assad all the support he needs to continue on as Syria’s leader, if that is what the Syrian people want.

    Given Assad’s open support of his military and the way the war against ISIS and other separatist groups was led by Syrian forces on the ground, there is little doubt that Assad will win that support in any upcoming elections.

    Putin Won’t Gloat

    The big question is, however, what price will be extracted from the U.S. for their part in all of this. Putin will not put Trump in a bad position. The loss of face for the U.S. has already occurred internationally.

    The Obama administration’s complicity in this sorry chapter of Middle East history has been mostly laid bare for anyone with eyes open enough to see.

    Putin will offer Trump a way to save face for the U.S. while laying all the blame on Obama, Clinton, McCain and the rest of them. If you don’t think this ties into Robert Mueller’s ‘Russia-Gate’ investigation run amok, you aren’t paying attention.

    Mueller is trying to desperately save everyone implicated here from treason charges. But, I expect, everything about the U.S. political scene is about to change radically.

    Once Judge Roy Moore enters the Senate (the odds of that not happening are close to zero), Trump has an impeachment-proof majority in the House and the Senate and can shut down Mueller or get him to play ball.

    Trump has the opportunity to play peace-maker here. He can solidify his position as the handler of Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s worst actors and keep them on a short leash.

    In fact, one could make a credible argument that is what the purge in Saudi Arabia was all about. Mohammed bin Salman’s counter-coup was done with Trump’s blessing.

    Putin can act similarly to allay suspicions of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s intentions. He can also restrain Assad from retaliating against his enemies, though rightly deserved, in order to build a lasting peace. And once the talks are over and the threat of Kurdish independence is over, Turkey will withdraw its troops from Syria.

    Putin called Trump earlier in the week to update him on what comes next. It’s obvious that the two have been in contact about how things are progressing in Syria. And, Trump, for his part has smartly left the clean-up work to Putin while he deals with his domestic neoconservative problems.

    Whatever happens after this – framework for long-term peace or an uneasy ceasefire with Russia playing the go-between for the time being – the U.S. has lost all credibility in the region outside of Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

    And we have no one to blame except ourselves.”

    • mike k
      November 23, 2017 at 20:59

      Don’t count on the neoziocons folding their tents in Syria or elsewhere too soon. The Dying Empire still has plenty of venom to spew on the world.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    November 23, 2017 at 11:03

    While I share Paul Pillar’s concern over Trump’s demonizing rhetoric of Kim Jung un, I also view much or maybe even most of Trump’s saber rattling, as more of his political theater. Since Russia’s entry into Syria the U.S. is now suffering from a lack of credibility to all things good. The Ukraine monsters haven been nearly as effective as their NATO overlords had wished them to be, and the NWO Imperial Empire has now been waylaid towards their conquest of Western Russia. The Pacific may come with it’s own set of hidden problems, with the U.S. having finally come to the realization that those huge aircraft carriers may be more of an expensive liability, as opposed to their being a strategic overwhelmingly destructive advantage. In fact the Seventh Fleet with all of it’s own self inflicted disastrous accidents may prove to be the most feared enemy unto itself. Stay tuned, for the next tweet.

  4. j. D. D.
    November 23, 2017 at 09:05

    So Obama attempted to respect the legal criteria associated with the terror list? Right, he just fabricated and promoted lie after lie about Libya, overthrowing that government and turning over the country to actual terrorists, then tried to do the same to Syria, and was thwarted only by the intervention of Vladimir Putin. And who can forget that accused Russia of terrorism in the MH17 hoax, accused it of invading Ukraine when no such thing occurred, and then was instrumental of the creation of the phony hacking and Russiagate scandal which threatens “regime change” against our own government.

    • Gregory Herr
      November 23, 2017 at 13:05

      “The Obama administration reportedly considered relisting North Korea but refrained because it could not identify a sound legal rationale for doing so.”

      That line grabbed my attention too. Why didn’t Obama just bring in John Yoo? Lawyerly contortionism has been used to justify just about anything and everything since 9/11, whether it be trampling upon the Constitution at home or running roughshod over the Geneva Conventions and the principles of Nuremberg abroad.

      I guess what the Pentagon and CIA “sponsors” doesn’t count when we draw up our “lists”. The world knows that when it comes to “law”, Bush, Sr. laid it out: “What we say goes,”

      The emperor truly has no clothes and it is beyond embarrassing.

      • j. D. D.
        November 23, 2017 at 14:09

        Or as Obama told China. “We make the rules.” Sure.

  5. david
    November 23, 2017 at 00:31

    oppose net neutrality: Ajit email: [email protected] Phone: 1-888-225-5322….. Mailing address: FCC 445 12th street SW, Wash DC . Copy/paste and pass around, do it before Dec 14th 2017

    • Virginia
      November 23, 2017 at 04:26


      Did you mean to say support Net Neutrality? We want to retain Net Neutrality, I believe. That allows users the most freedom to make their own choices about what to read and to have most accessibility to this.

      Thank you for info on how to contact.

      • Al Pinto
        November 23, 2017 at 10:32

        Net Neutrality hasn’t been in existence for awhile by now. Search engines, such as Google, Bing, etc., with their selective search results influence what people read. MSM, such as NYT, WAPO, etc., tell you what to think about events by providing one sided views.

        This has been working to near perfection and the majority of the people fell for it. Obviously, not the people who read CN and other sites. Unfortunately, those people are just a small percentage of the population and as such, their impact to anything is non-existent. Other than venting at sites, such as CN, and others…

        • mike k
          November 23, 2017 at 20:52

          Our impact here is not zero. There is more than just venting going on here. These investigative sites are a precious resource. When a tipping point occurs and people start awakening in larger numbers, these sites will be there for them, guiding them to the precious truths they will be hungry for. If nobody does alternative history, then the official line becomes the only reality. This is the above ground underground – cherish it.

          • November 24, 2017 at 01:30

            Mike,…you’re beginning to sound positive…Have you been taking prozac?

      • Virginia
        November 23, 2017 at 18:47

        David, Al,

        Found this article:
        Don’t ‘throttle’ websites, defend net neutrality – Justin Trudeau has dig at US

        Very important issue!

        • Virginia
          November 24, 2017 at 10:28

          Another light in the world! See article on about Kim Dotcom:

          Imagine! An ‘alternative internet’ not ‘completely in the hands of Facebook & Google’

          • Al Pinto
            November 24, 2017 at 11:14


            Kim Dotcom idea still requires infrastructure for having connectivity to the “alternative internet”, be that wired or wireless. Great idea, but:

            a.) Kim will not do it for free
            b.) Relying on third-parties for access to the “alternative internet” is a lost cause with net neutrality rolled back
            c.) Kim will not build out his own infrastructure for this purpose, it is prohibitively expensive

        • Al Pinto
          November 24, 2017 at 11:08


          For the record, I am against repealing the net neutrality and transferring the regulations from FCC to FTC. And I fully agree with John Oliver’s video:


          And yes, I did go to the link in the video and filed a protest again repealing the net neutrality regulation, and transferring broadband access control from FCC to FTC. Even if I know, that FCC already made the decision to do just that before the December 14 vote:


          That’s just the reality of this issue…

          If they do proceed as predicted and my cable company starts charging more for certain access and implement data caps, my only option in my neighborhood is cut the cord, or move. I am not moving…

          • Virginia
            November 24, 2017 at 13:09

            We are on the same page, Al. I support net neutrality all the way. I wish Google would stop interfering, that is, stop steering and trying to frame the conversation.

  6. Andrew Nichols
    November 22, 2017 at 22:17

    An on cue the pathetic Australian colonial govt via the arch groveller Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed its support….

  7. Virginia
    November 22, 2017 at 21:41

    I read somewhere today that China is not happy about the new North Korean sanctions.

    It’s hard to tell whether Kim Jong Un is an unstable or not because how can anyone fault him for looking at what happened to Libya and adamantly refusing to do away with his nuclear weaponry? I may be wrong but I also understand that he’s done well by North Korea under dire circumstances of the US imposed sanctions over the decades. He may be a pretty smart leader after all.

    • mike k
      November 23, 2017 at 20:46

      Kim may be very smart and good, but also pretty crazy and bad at the same time. People are complicated critters – I know because of my own makeup.

  8. Skip Scott
    November 22, 2017 at 16:43

    So killing civilians at weddings and funerals with drone strikes doesn’t count as state sponsorship of terrorism? Oh yeah, I forgot, that’s “collateral damage”. Probably doesn’t make much difference to the dead people what you call it. We should be at the top of our own list.

    • mike k
      November 22, 2017 at 17:54

      We (USA) are at the top of the state sponsors of terrorism list. Nobody else is even close. We fund the major terrorist organizations in the world. They would be really strapped for funds without the US/Israel/Saudi axis.

      • Ol' Hippy
        November 23, 2017 at 15:05

        According to Noam Chomsky this is a correct assessment. The US is THE biggest threat to world peace and has been for quite some time, at least during my entire life of 63 years. The US along with Saudi Arabia and Israel are the biggest perpetrators of terrorism on the planet.

  9. mike k
    November 22, 2017 at 16:12

    Trying to apply logic or legal parameters to anything the US Government does is a waste of time. The actions of totally irresponsible bullies just don’t fit in those frames. Criminals don’t play by those rules. To think that you can curb these maniacs by recourse to rules and reason and ordinary concern for others, is to guarantee that you will become a victim of their evil behavior.

    • Seer
      November 23, 2017 at 14:13

      Exactly! He who rules gets to make the rules.

  10. Drew Hunkins
    November 22, 2017 at 16:11

    How can any reasonable observer take Washington’s ‘sponsors of terrorism’ list seriously when it totally ignores the Zio-Saudi Terror Network?

    Of course this is all beyond laughable.

    • tina
      November 22, 2017 at 23:44

      Let us add to the international list of state supporting/sponsored terrorists,: Cuba, Columbia, Venezuela, The ANC in South Africa, Nicaragua, Honduras, Yemen, Somalia…. Notice who is not on this list? And I bet the afore mentioned nations are the richest countries in the world. I am so happy to be a white american because my ancestors fought for freedom against terrorists. Gotta get rid of those pesky people , somehow.

  11. Ol' Hippy
    November 22, 2017 at 14:53

    Seems the ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ list has more to do with ideological contentions than actual sponsors of terrorism. If that were indeed the case Saudi Arabia and Israel would top the list, which of course won’t happen. Sure N Korea is basically run like a giant cult with the leader, Kim Jong-un, calling all the shots and human rights abuses run rampant. But is it really in the US’s best interest to go to such lengths to antagonize a country and exacerbate their nuclear weapons and missiles testing in a macho display of power plays? I’m guessing that decreasing pressure by say removing two of the three carrier groups from the immediate area and reducing military exercises on their door step would go a long way towards easing tensions. I am a pacifist and always favor negotiations over hostile acts and believe this just might work. After all is it really the US’s place to try to destabilize a backwards country as N Korea is to instill ‘western’ ideologies? Perhaps leaving them alone would go much further to add stability to the entire area instead of all the bellicose threats and constant military exercises on their doorstep.

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