Carl Bernstein on the Deep State and Surveillance - WhoWhatWhy

Carl Bernstein on the Deep State and Surveillance

Richard Nixon, Donald Trump
Richard Nixon and Donald Trump Photo credit: National Archives / Wikimedia and North Charleston / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Carl Bernstein knows a thing or two about a high-ranking government official turning on his president. He and fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward famously broke the Watergate burglary story, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

During their investigation, the reporters were, according to an account provided years later by Woodward, given critical information by Mark Felt, the FBI’s deputy director, whom they referred to as “Deep Throat.”*

Now, once again, a president is the target of leaks that are likely coming from high-ranking government officials.

During a recent CNN-hosted Q&A session at SXSW, WhoWhatWhy asked Bernstein his thoughts on the apparent conflict between President Donald Trump and what many are calling the “Deep State.” He expressed a skepticism about the term, saying that many unfounded conspiracy theories were being associated with it. He acknowledged however, that there are elements of the Deep State narrative that could be true.

Many different definitions of the Deep State are floating around. One common narrative is that intelligence bureaucrats, loyal to the Obama administration and liberal ideology generally, have been undermining the Trump presidency through damaging leaks to the press, especially concerning his business relationships with Russia.

According to a counter-narrative, forces within the FBI acted to support Trump in the way they handled the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email server during the election.

When asked by CNN what to make of the Trump-Russia connection that has dominated news headlines, Bernstein gave a surprisingly conservative answer, saying, “I don’t know.” He stressed the need for careful investigative journalism to separate fact from fiction.

Carl Bernstein

Carl Bernstein answering questions at CNN hosted event at SXSW.
Photo credit: Jimmy Falls / WhoWhatWhy

Deep conflicts within government can have beneficial consequences for the public, though this is not always recognized immediately. Bernstein and Woodward’s investigations not only brought down Nixon; they were also a catalyst for a whole series of government investigations into US intelligence activities, including the Rockefeller Commission, the Pike and Church committees, and House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Many reforms, such as the establishment of the FISA court and the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, came about as a result of these hearings.

Though discussion of the Deep State is in vogue now, WhoWhatWhy has been ahead of the curve on this issue. As predicted, the mainstream discussion is being directed to mid-level bureaucrats, rather than to the power elite, the 1% whose domains include Wall Street and the military-industrial-complex, and whose abiding (if sometimes diffuse) influence was the subject of WhoWhatWhy’s inquiries.

“Indiscriminate” and “Arbitrary”


WhoWhatWhy also asked Bernstein to compare the surveillance/intelligence complex in his day to that of today, post-Snowden. He said that long before Edward Snowden came on the scene, he was quite aware of the NSA’s technical capabilities, including the ability to “vacuum” up vast amounts of electronic data. He referred to the book The Puzzle Palace by James Bamford, a 1982 exposé on the NSA. Yet he indicated that even in light of Snowden’s revelations, there has been no clear evidence of abuse of this vast surveillance privilege by the intelligence agencies.

There has been no evidence that the executive branch has abused surveillance powers to spy on opposing political parties or candidates, as Nixon tried to do by bugging the offices of the Democratic headquarters. (Although now Trump, without providing any evidence, has openly accused the Obama adminstration of just such actions.)

However, indiscriminate data collection from US citizens can itself be construed as an abuse of the Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Federal district judge Richard J. Leon described the NSA’s technological capabilities as “Orwellian.” In his ruling he writes:

I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval.

There is yet another sense in which real, concrete abuses of power have been brought to light by leakers. WhoWhatWhy recently interviewed former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who first leaked that the CIA was kidnapping and torturing terrorism suspects in secret bases worldwide. He was tried under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and spent two years in a federal prison. Apparently, neither the Obama nor the Trump administration want such revelations to reach the public.

In a political environment where the power of government is regularly marshaled to bury news of  unreasonable surveillance and other Deep State abuses, Carl Bernstein’s advice to pursue the truth tenaciously seems more timely than ever.

* Editor’s Note: Readers of WhoWhatWhy and its editor Russ Baker’s book Family of Secrets are familiar with serious questions about Woodward’s veracity, about the conventional Watergate narrative we’ve all heard — and about the claimed role of Felt. Nonetheless, Bernstein gained justified praise for work he did for Rolling Stone, after leaving the Washington Post, on the extent to which the CIA had compromised the American media.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Carl Bernstein (Jimmy Falls / WhoWhatWhy)

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3 responses to “Carl Bernstein on the Deep State and Surveillance”

  1. Avatar BSDN says:

    “He said that long before Edward Snowden came on the scene, he was quite aware of the NSA’s technical capabilities, including the ability to “vacuum” up vast amounts of electronic data. . . . . However, indiscriminate data collection from US citizens can itself be construed as IS an abuse of the Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
    [Check out Napolitano on “general warrants” now back on Faux News until they fire him again. It was one of the abuses that led up to the War for Independence.]

    End of story. It’s all there in the fine print and any time anybody duly elected wants to take advantage of it, game over. FTM what in sam hill did anybody think the NatlDefAuthAct was when the prez was given authority to take out anybody he deemed a “terrorist”?

    Bernstein also talked about CIA manipulation of the media, but ahem . . . it doesn’t happen any more.

    Right, Carl.
    Who paid you off?
    Or are you afraid to talk for fear of getting offed?

    In principle, this is the United Surveillance States of Amerika. Our intelligence agencies are an electronic version of the Praetorian Guard.

    Yeah, the Russians are stirring the pot, but they are basically a red herring and diversion from what is really going on.

    D is a very imperfect candidate, but he had all the right enemies. It’s sad to say, but if this is admin is no more than the same old same old under new management, it still was time for a new crime syndicate. The Clinton Foundation was long past its expiration date. That’s how fed up the serfs are.

  2. Avatar VoxFox says:

    Bernstein was used by Team-A of the Deep State to take down Nixon, who was blocking their man (Big Bush from his path to the presidency.)

  3. Avatar Josh Stern says:

    We’re all grateful for the work that Woodward, Bernstein, WaPo, and Felt did to expose the Watergate coverup. But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of questions related to that event remain unanswered and unexplored. Why was FBI No. 2 Mark Felt obliged to meet secretly with reporters and given them cryptic info about criminal wrongdoing, while disguising his hand in that? Is that the way the DOJ/FBI normally behave either in virtuous theory or corrupt Spook practice?? Why were the experienced CIA cover ops people swept up in a routine, nighttime, burglary in the first place, where they seemingly left a lot of amateurish clues almost asking to be found? Why was CIA super black ops/propaganda guy and author E. Howard Hunt doing such low level work for Nixon in the first place? Did any of these things have to do with Nixon going soft on ICBM buildup, detente, China, and Vietnam? One can’t help wondering if this great triumph of the press was, at core, yet another CIA/FBI psyop played out in CIA controlled WaPo as an American morality play. I don’t know the answer, but the first set of questions are real.