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Inside the maelstrom: Brandon Mayfield reflects on America, 13 years later
When it comes to issues of nationalism, terrorism and rhetoric aimed at Islamic countries, President Donald Trump has galvanized the country. Some voters adore him. Others fear him.
On the campaign trail, as president-elect and as president, he spoke of bombing Middle Eastern countries and "taking" their oil. He called for closing the nation's borders to Muslims. His two presidential orders banning travelers from several Muslim-majority countries were seen by some as finally acknowledging the animosity of militant Islamist forces. But for others, the orders — blocked both times by courts — flew in the face of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, because it focused on people of one faith.
Throughout the national debate, one Beaverton resident has watched the evolution of Americans' attitudes and approaches to what is now a more than 15-year-long "war on terrorism" from the perspective of one who has been swept up in it, if briefly. Thirteen years ago this month, the FBI believed Brandon Mayfield to be connected to a deadly string of bombings in Spain. A partial fingerprint found on a detonator outside Madrid looked like it might have been his (see sidebar at the bottom of this article). He was held for two weeks in the Multnomah County Detention Center before being released, followed by a rare apology from the FBI for their mistake.
Mayfield is an attorney, a former Army lieutenant, and a Muslim. He's also the co-author, along with his daughter, attorney Sharia Mayfield, of the book, "Improbable Cause: The War on Terror's Assault on the Bill of Rights," which tells the tale.
The Times met with Mayfield last week at his law office in Beaverton to ask him about the last year since Donald Trump improbably outdistanced more than a dozen Republicans; the feud with a Gold Star family; the travel bans; the protests and marches; and the situation today.
Mayfield has harsh words for the president but also gives him credit. He also takes issue with past White House administrations.
"If I had to sum up the policies of each of the last three presidents, from Bush to Obama to Trump, it would have to be false fears, ineffective unity and effective division," Mayfield said.
President George W. Bush used the time after Sept. 11, 2001, to keep the nation afraid, he said, launching what he criticized as an illegal war against Iraq, which had no provable connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and which did not possess the weapons of mass destruction initially used to justify the U.S. invasion.
President Barack Obama, he said, attempted to bring the nation together but failed to achieve anything close to unity.
And Trump's focus has been on intentionally dividing the nation, Mayfield said, by creating scapegoats.
Not only has Trump's rhetoric about Islam and Muslims been dangerous, in Mayfield's view, but the reported cases of hate crimes against Muslim-Americans has spiked nationwide.
"He gives others license to say and do things," Mayfield said. "It's like, hey, if the president-elect, or the president, can say these things, then so can I."
On the other hand, Mayfield noted the unintended unity being created by those who oppose the Trump administration. He points to the Women's March — which took place throughout the nation this winter, including an estimated 100,000 people in Portland — along with an unending series of protests and marches since.
"During Vietnam, the anti-war movement happened after we'd been at war," Mayfield said. "At least we can say this: The anti-war movement today is in place before we're at war."
Mayfield doesn't disapprove of Trump entirely. For instance, on the campaign trail, Trump called the Iraq War a mistake; Mayfield agrees.
In April, the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are said to have used a deadly nerve gas, sarin, on civilian populations. In response, Trump ordered an airstrike on the Al-Shayrat military airfield in Syria. If the Syrian forces did use nerve gas on civilians, Mayfield said, then the retaliatory missile strike was "appropriate and measured."
Likewise, Trump drew criticism this month from saying he would be willing to meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. Mayfield served in the Korean demilitarized zone alongside Republic of Korea forces in 1986, when he was an Army officer.
"It wasn't like Germany, back then, which was pretty peaceful. Korea's dangerous and volatile, and Trump's right to speak to Kim," he said.
America's relationship with North Korea over the last several administrations has vacillated between sanctions and "yelling at them," which doesn't work, Mayfield said, to diplomacy. He favors diplomacy.
On domestic issues, he's no fan of Attorney General Jeff Sessions or FBI Director James Comey. Thanks to the Patriot Act, Mayfield said, his Beaverton home was broken into in 2004 and his communications tapped. His faith in the Justice Department has been low ever since.
In fact, James Comey — possibly the best-known FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover — played a small role in Mayfield's incarceration. District Judge Robert Jones called in a young deputy U.S. attorney, Comey, and asked him to relay a message to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft: no more leaks in the Mayfield investigation. The judge went so far as to issue a gag order at the time.
A clerk for Judge Jones this week confirmed the story.
Comey, of course, is in the news this month for deciding before the November 2016 election to speak out about a possible investigation into Secretary Hillary Clinton's emails, and to not speak out about an investigation into links between the Trump campaign team and Russian officials.
For all of Mayfield's antipathy for that era's Justice Department, it might be surprising that his daughter, Sharia, accepted a job with the Oregon Department of Justice in Salem, focusing on civil litigation.
Did he try to talk her out of that?
"No, I'm proud of her," Mayfield said. "We didn't argue when she got this offer. We did, way before that, when she wanted to go to law school. I was like, 'You want to be a lawyer?' But no, when she went to work for DOJ, I was OK. That's a good job."
On the topic of the nation as a whole, Mayfield said he does worry that Americans' perceptions of Islam have eroded. Most Americans don't understand Islam, and that was always true, but public opinion of the faith and its adherents has eroded badly under Trump, he said.
And asked if he's optimistic or pessimistic about things in general, Mayfield paused and thought about it.
"Right now, I'd say I'm an intellectual pessimist," he said. "I'm worried about us. I am. But my heart and will are optimistic, always."
2004: As Spain reeled, FBI focused on obscure lawyer from Aloha
The threat level in Spain was so low in March 2004 that King Juan Carlos broke security protocol to attend a rowdy soccer match between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
The next morning, thousands of Madrilenos began their daily commute, many by commuter train. Just before 8 a.m., a train car at the Atocha Station near the Prado Museum erupted in flame.
The explosion, from a backpack stuffed with explosives and a cellphone detonator, ripped the train in two. As authorities scrambled to respond, a second train near Santa Eugenia exploded. Two more followed. More than 190 civilians were killed and more than 1,800 were wounded on that date, March 11, 2004.
It was the single worst terrorist attack in Europe since a bomb brought down an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
At first, authorities were quick to blame ETA, a Basque separatist group that had sought independence from Spain for decades. But a van found in the suburb of Alcala de Henares, birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, upended that theory. The van contained a list of Quran verses and detonators.
One of the detonators turned up a partial thumb print. Spanish intelligence ran the partial and found 15 potential matches.
Most in Europe and the African Maghreb.
But one led to a young lawyer in Aloha, a former Army lieutenant and a convert to Islam.
As unlikely as the connection now seems, it was enough to hold Mayfield, then 37, for two weeks in the Multnomah County Detention Center. The FBI had run a surveillance operation in his home, under the auspices of the Patriot Act.
Among the "evidence" against him: his attendance at a mosque in Southwest Portland; an ad he placed for legal services in a publication owned by someone with suspected terrorism connections; a phone call his wife placed to an Islamic charity; his son's Spanish homework.
Spanish investigators quickly ruled Mayfield out of the list of possible links to the partial thumb print, linking it instead to an Algerian. The FBI, though, trusted their own supercomputer's analysis. Eventually, FBI agents flew to Spain to study the original print, only to conclude their Spanish counterparts were correct: It wasn't a match.
Two weeks into his ordeal, Mayfield was released. He'd been held as a material witness. He was never charged with any crimes.
The FBI issued a rare apology upon his release.