President Donald Trump and his administration, according to reports, are worried that government employees are allied against him.
Between his accusations of wiretapping and leaking, adviser Stephen Bannon’s campaign to dismantle “the administrative state,” and the hunch (not without evidence) that government employees lean left, the White House seems to buy the “deep state” theory — the notion that the will of a duly elected president can be thwarted by bureaucrats, especially in the national security realm. While civil servants and the 5.1 million people with security clearances do sometimes act in concert (when fighting a war, for instance), many misconceptions persist about civil servants, their degree of independence and ties to previous administrations.
Myth 1: It’s the hidden source of national security policy.
According to some on the right, there exists a group of unaccountable men and women who have collectively decided to go rogue. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn “was ousted by former Obama officials to protect (the) Iran Deal,” reported the Blaze, a conservative site. Some on the left say deep-state officials want to assure Russia remains an enemy of the United States.
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The reality is that the deep state is a major, hidden amplifier of national security policy set by elected officials and carried out primarily through public communication, concentrated diplomacy and overt military action. After 9/11, for instance, the George W. Bush administration decided that preemptively killing terrorists before they could strike was a top priority. The military carried out that policy by war, as did the CIA’s drone fleet. Similarly, the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program morphed into a state-sanctioned torture regime, because the Bush administration wanted it to work and assumed it did. The policy was approved at the highest levels by elected leaders. Even without all the details, congressional leaders knew the gist of what was happening.
If Trump decides to reach out to Vladimir Putin, the deep state will help, even if the product of its intelligence-gathering suggests wariness and caution.
Myth 2: It evades oversight.
As former congressman Alan Graysonsaid, oversight “is a joke.” Congress has neither the staff nor the remit to direct or micromanage the execution of national security policy. Administrations withhold details from Congress, often by omission and because policies really are confusing, but occasionally on purpose. For a long time, the FBI routinely harassed American political dissidents; the National Security Agency opened telegrams to and from U.S. citizens abroad; and the CIA ran a secret war in Southeast Asia.
But in the 1970s, the Vietnam War and Watergate emboldened Congress. After a series of investigations, known to history by the last names of the senators who chaired them — Pike and Church — a more modern oversight system was born. Military policy, defense appropriations, intelligence agencies and homeland security all have separate committees before which officials must regularly testify under oath and justify their actions. At least some members of Congress must be notified before the start of any CIA covert operation, and the most highly classified of all defense activities, known as waived Special Access Programs, must be orally briefed to bipartisan congressional leadership.
Increased public access to information has also made sleuths of everyone, and the ability of less-powerful actors to instigate larger investigations of the deep state has become a significant check. In the long run, the national security apparatus cannot attract the best and brightest when it does bad things.
Myth 3: It leaks gratuitously.
The president has complained about those perfidious spies and their dangerous secrets, saying they have illegally disclosed classified information to the media. Yes, people with security clearances occasionally leak classified information.
Before Watergate, leaks often served as a genuine check on unconstrained executive power. But nowadays, the deep state seems to be the source of fewer leaks of classified information than political officeholders and their staffs. What we know about the inner workings of Trump’s White House appears to be coming from his own top aides. We don’t know if the officials who told reporters Trump was keeping information about Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak from his vice president came largely from Trump’s own team, but given how tightly held that information was, at least some of them had to be close to the president.
Myth 4: It is unchangeable.
Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staffer with significant experience in the defense budget world, calls the deep state “almost impervious to change.” Versions of this argument persist on talk radio. “The people in Washington are not just going to sit idly by and let election results determine whether or not (change) happens to them,” Rush Limbaugh said.
But the deep state is highly fragile — vulnerable, by its nature, to single-point failure, usually in the form of individuals who have something they’d like to tell the world. Think of Edward Snowden’s intellectual revolt against the National Security Agency, or the decision by a lonely Army private in Iraq to steal diplomatic cables, or whomever gifted WikiLeaks with the CIA’s phone and television hacking tools. In this way, a single person can completely alter the way an institution conducts tradecraft.
Further, bureaucrats cannot avoid the consequences of misbehavior directed at the president. Budgets can be slashed, programs curtailed and policy changed. The Obama administration made it harder for the government to assert its state secrets privilege, directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify and disclose a significant amount of information about the NSA’s legal wrangling with federal courts, and asked the NSA to disclose to companies many of the previously unknown vulnerabilities found by its hackers.
Myth 5: The military-industrial complex is the deep state.
Presidents have often felt threatened by the national security apparatus. In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower presciently warned about the military’s Cold War prerogatives, labeling a group of postwar elites as the “military-industrial complex.” John F. Kennedy was shaken enough about the CIA’s own sense of grandeur that he appointed his brother to oversee all covert operations.
Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” was white, male, Christian and ruled by a priesthood that sanctified nuclear doctrine, while today’s national security bureaucracy is professionalized, rule-based, highly diverse and organized around counterterrorism.
Furthermore, the deep state contains multitudes who are often at odds with one another. Defense contractors exulted at Trump’s election, as did a plurality of rank-and-file soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who voted for him. But top generals and career civilians, whose interests converge around the public good, civic norms and global stability, fretted. And the CIA’s senior officer cadre blanched.
The various parts of the deep state often do not align. They do not form a conspiracy.
Ambinder, a fellow at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, is co-author of “Deep State.”