The existence of the “Deep State” is a white-wing fantasy formulated by folks advancing absurd, typically fascist ideas in need of an enemy. It typically is advanced by folks who never worked in any intelligence agency, either Civilian or Military – basically because they didn’t have the mental stability to pass the background checks. Ergo, while the NRA and Reprobates are stupid enough to give crazy people guns…At least so far, our government isn’t turning over the keys to the nuclear arsenal to the whack-jobs – even if the Useful Fools voted in one.
What we have in this country is a group of intelligence services each assigned their area of responsibility who often are fractious and refuse to turn over intelligence to each other. George W. Bush found that out the hard way on 911 and strove mightily to fix a broken system where the FBI didn’t talk to the CIA, and the CIA didn’t talk to the NSA. While it is better than it used to be, there is still some healthy inter-agency rivalry, The fact that all 17 Intelligence agencies (about a third of those are private, not government) came up with the same conclusion on Putin’s Bitch being a traitor is stunning to anyone who understands how these organizations actually work. Basically it means that 17 different organizations, with entirely different methods, and scopes of operation limited to inside, or outside the US – independently came to the same conclusion.
Despite the pablum Americans are fed each night on the Boob-Tube, the people who work for these agencies are neither endowed with superhuman abilities, aren’t arch-villains, and don’t go around breaking the law. Two of those agencies do have technology which would boggle your mind, DARPA also develops bleeding edge technology typically used by the Military, However much of the stuff you see on TV doesn’t exist other than in some technologist’s wet dream, of just doesn’t work that way.And while there are certainly some really bad guys out there. Bad guy access to bleeding edge technology is pretty limited.
So…There is no “Deep State”.
Here’s a handy rule for assessing the credibility of what you’re reading about national security in the Trump era: If somebody uses the term “Deep State,” you can be pretty sure they have no idea what they’re talking about.
The phrase’s appeal is undeniable. The notion of a shadowy network pulling the strings in Washington is an attractive one to an embattled White House and its political opponents, shorthand-employing commentators and conspiracy theorists alike. But uncritical use of this canard is lazy at best and counterproductive at worst. The term, which political scientists invented to refer to the networks of generals and spymasters that rule many authoritarian states around the world, has migrated from leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy to the alt-right advisers running the White House. As a card-carrying former member of America’s vast national security bureaucracy, I find it offensive. But I also find it offensive as an analyst, because it’s a deeply misleading way to understand how the U.S. government really works.
So what is—or isn’t—the Deep State?
Let’s start with standard insinuations of the phrase. There are more than 2 million civilian executive branch employees (not counting the U.S. military or portions of the intelligence community, which does not fully report employment numbers). At least half of that number work in an agency related to national security, broadly defined. When combined with the million-plus uniformed military and support system of contractors, this is an unwieldy group. A mix of hard-working patriots, clock-punchers, technocrats, veterans and scammers, these folks swear the same oath to defend the Constitution.
Hollywood bears much of the blame in portraying this group as some combination of Rambo, the All-Seeing Eye of Mordor and the cast of Homeland—an omniscient guerilla force unaccountable to any authority. Reality is less made for the big screen; if, say, “Zero Dark Thirty” had been true to life, it likely would have been a single shot of 100 hours of lawyers’ meetings. The national security bureaucracy does wield awe-inspiring capabilities that could be disastrous if abused; months sitting through the Obama administration’s surveillance policy review made that clear. But while civil servants and military personnel do pledge to defend the Constitution, it is not only the goodness of their hearts but a complex web of legal, congressional, bureaucratic and political oversight that guards against such risks. These checks are met with both grumbles and keen awareness of how they set the U.S. rule of law apart from, say, Russia. These systems are not foolproof, and could undoubtedly be improved. The flaws of the administrative state—ranging from redundancy and waste to self-interested bloat to inability to innovate to scandalous incidents of corruption—have been well documented, its day-to-day successes far less so. But find me an alternative to the national security bureaucracy, or find me a functioning state without one.
To Steve Bannon and his colleagues in the White House, the Deep State is an adversary to be destroyed. In recent remarks, the president’s chief strategist called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” According to the Washington Post, he’s been whispering in President Trump’s ear about the Deep State’s alleged campaign to ruin him. And, truth be told, charged with leaking for its own purposes, thwarting President Trump’s policy priorities and ousting his appointees, this “Deep State” sure looks quite guilty in the context of a chaotic first six weeks in office.
But it’s far easier to blame shadowy bureaucrats than to take responsibility for your own failures. The president’s executive order on terrorism didn’t fail because the “Deep State” sabotaged it; it failed because an insular White House did not seek or heed its advice. Leaks did not bring down former national security adviser Mike Flynn; his deception of Vice President Mike Pence did. Though it is impossible to know, much of the exposure of White House infighting that so angers Trump seems far more likely to be coming from his senior aides than from low-level bureaucrats.
None of which is to say that Bannon’s view of the world is completely baseless. Bureaucracies have institutional interests they are loath to let go of, and are plagued by an inertia resistant to disruption. This is common to all large organizations, not a flaw unique to the U.S. system of government. But Trump has a tool to manage this dynamic that he has inexplicably chosen not to wield: placement of around 4,000 political appointees throughout the bureaucracy. Inserting his personal emissaries throughout the “Deep State” would give him far more political control over the civil servants he perceives to be rebelling, and at the same time give his team better access to their expertise. But not a single one has been confirmed below Cabinet level.
And here’s where Bannon’s blame game breaks down: Past presidents have learned there are limits to what a pen and a phone (or a tweet) can implement without calling on the resources of the administrative state. This is not a threat but a fact. Their oath is to the Constitution, not the president, but they are effectively there to make him look good. And he has no alternative: There is no substitute state to defeat ISIS, renegotiate trade deals, build walls, round up illegal immigrants or catch terrorists if Trump works to dismantle the national security bureaucracy. Making the “Deep State” an enemy will cripple his administration.
To many in the media, the “Deep State” has become a convenient label for any quasi-official entity or view that is not enabling the Trump agenda. The former president, Congress, the judiciary, the grass roots community, unions, the Blob, Black Lives Matter and the “mainstream media” have all been lumped with the national security bureaucracy to help explain the unexplainable first weeks of this administration. “Evidence” of such is usually offered in the form of political alignment of the bureaucracy with these groups, leaks of policy deliberations at inconvenient moments, or the lack of success of the president’s desired policy outcomes.
Many assume that civil servants are liberal on various domestic political issues. The reality is more complex, particularly in the national security field, and as veterans make up an increasing proportion of the federal workforce. Various polls proclaimed federal workers would resign if Trump won the election in numbers ranging from 14 percent to nearly 30 percent. Despite some very public anecdotes, the anticipated wave of federal departures has not yet occurred.
Those employees who remain are frequently accused of “thwarting” President Trump’s agenda. This is a serious accusation, but one that hasn’t manifested evidence or shown any distinction from bureaucratic shirking problems that have plagued every prior administration (Obama’s travails with the Pentagon come to mind). Government sausage-making is no silent coup. Presidents do not rule by a Picard-like “make it so,” and agencies have an obligation to present policy advice based on the best facts available. When the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence unit failed to find that the countries implicated in the president’s refugee executive order present a terror threat, the analysts were just doing their jobs—not defying the president. When government lawyers shared legal concerns about the so-called travel ban, they were just offering their best advice. To Trump, perhaps the end result feels the same: He is not getting all he wants and the bureaucracy is telling him no. But this happens to all presidents. The difference with Trump is that he can’t handle the truth.
But those leaks! Here’s the thing about leaks: They are anonymous, and no one issues a friendly survey after a leak querying why the leaker did it. So maybe there is a weekly bowling party where the Deep State gathers to plan its agenda-thwarting leaks. Or maybe the Trump White House is doing what the Trump campaign did with regularity: leaking. Or maybe the leaks would dry up if any sort of formal policy process were launched at the National Security Council and there were other means to air policy concerns. Or maybe leaks are nothing new, having been rounding condemned and unprecedentedly prosecuted in the prior administration, and we just got around to calling it the Deep State. You and I have no idea, and that is the point.
For some, discussions about the Deep State can be a form of wish-casting. Would the military disobey unwise orders from President Trump? Will Defense Secretary James Mattis “save” us from extreme actions in foreign policy? More likely, each will stay in their lane and there will be no scenario in which the system of checks and balances has broken down so badly that they are compelled to initiate a major crisis with the president. For there are checks and balances we should want to be empowered, rather than turn to conspiracy: the judiciary, the media, a healthy political advocacy culture, Congress, the policy and legal advice of institutions, the statutory roles the military and intelligence communities, voters and more. These roles, bound up in our Constitution, do not an activist Deep State make, nor should anyone want them to…
So the next time you hear someone using the term “Deep State,” send them a copy of this article. Ask them to stop using it. Tell them the term betrays their ignorance, and obscures and misleads far more than it illuminates. And if that doesn’t work, well, we Deep Staters will take matters into our own hands.