A Deep State: The Gun the US Doesn’t Have

Deep State
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Air Force

Fifteen years ago, former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed on the ignored intelligence that debunked the argument for the Iraq War, setting off a chain of events that led to the outing of a covert US intelligence agent who happened to be his wife.

But just as importantly, it revealed how complicated our relationship is with intelligence agencies. That’s a matter of extreme importance given the dust up between the Trump White House on allegations of a “Deep State” and… well, just about everyone in the intel community.

A Liberal View of the ‘Plame Affair’

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The agent whose cover was blown was Valerie Plame, and the person who did it was a member of the Bush administration. What was interesting in the aftermath was the way opinions diverged about a Republican operative — officially Vice President Dick Cheney’s adviser Scooter Libby, but according to reports more likely Richard Armitage — outing a working covert CIA officer.  

Democrats were outraged by the leak, but Republicans offered a different response, pointing to Plame’s relationship to Wilson, who had offered a potential dismantling of one of the Bush administration’s arguments that led to the war in Iraq.

So we saw one party — the one normally suspicious of the intelligence community’s extrajudicial methods  defending a CIA officer and the other party, supposedly pro-security, burning her cover and her career.

Since 2003, the intelligence debate has become much more complex. We debate the cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, both of whom leaked US intelligence secrets. Are they heroes or traitors? Is it news that the NSA spied on allies and US citizens, or is it true that if you aren’t spying on everyone, you aren’t doing it right?

Should we care about the NSA when we allow Facebook, Google, Amazon, and the other big data giants access to all of our information with some version of permission? We spend our hard-earned dollars buying devices that can listen, record, and send real-time private conversations to anyone.

The lines are blurred, the questions more myriad than ever. Whom do we trust as a rule? State power, corporate power, the president, a party… just ourselves? And if we entertain the idea of a Deep State, where should we go?

The Trump Complaint

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The latest intelligence debate revolves around Trump, who has trotted out the idea that a Deep State is out to tank his presidency. And again the party divide is present and confused.

Democrats, with a long history of antagonism toward the FBI, are out every day defending former FBI director James Comey and current special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and whether that interference was coordinated with the Trump campaign. It should also be of interest to point out that Comey triggered the original investigation into the outing of Plame and that Trump pardoned Libby in April.

Trump is attacking the investigation as a “witch hunt,” undermining the determination by the intelligence community that Russia helped him win, and, along with his allies, alluding to the idea that there is a “Deep State” in America that would prefer that he was not the president.

The origins of the idea of a Deep State comes from Turkey nearly a century ago, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created measures to keep the country secular regardless of what happened in democratic elections. It has also been applied to post-Soviet Russia where President Vladimir Putin, once part of the country’s intelligence apparatus, has maintained power for nearly two decades.

The idea of a US Deep State is fairly recent, even though it could be argued that J. Edgar Hoover’s five-decade reign as head of the FBI might qualify. Hoover was unquestionably controversial and his abuses of power led to many changes in how the FBI is run, including term-limiting the director’s time to a single decade.

Still, accusations of a US Deep State have largely been considered a discussion for the fringes, for those “conspiracy theorists” on the right and left who greatly fear abuses of state power. Snowden’s leaks of intelligence gathering by the NSA affirmed fears that the government has been continuing to use technology without oversight to spy on its people.

However, the revelations of the 2016 election, so far known, also affirm the fears that intelligence gathering and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants and other methodologies may be necessary to protect democracy from foreign and domestic actors.

We are forced to ask the question given the things we think we know. If our adversaries have no qualms about using whatever means necessary to undermine us, what is our counter-response and how do we protect ourselves and civil liberties at the same time?

Deep State, Donald Trump

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and US Government.

The Deep State Is a Gun

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Every major country has some form of intelligence apparatus, but that doesn’t make it a Deep State. For a Deep State to exist, it must have a mission and foes it is guarding against internally. The Deep State is not anodyne, it is dangerous.

In Turkey and in Russia, what might pass for a Deep State is armed and supposedly killing people with not even a whiff of legality. For example, there are numerous allegations that diplomats connected to the Steele dossier as well as Putin critics have met with suspicious and often violent ends.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shows what happens when a Deep State is further weaponized. The original purpose of Turkey’s so-called Deep State again was to prevent the creep of religion into the Turkish government. Instead, over the course of a decade, Erdoğan and his party began slowly dismantling the separation between mosque and state.

In fact, Erdoğan used the idea of the Deep State to make these gains. The Deep State already was highly unpopular because it was used to erode real reforms in addition to supposedly “protecting” the Turkish state. “The Deep State was a kind of criminal organization,” Omer Taspinar told the Atlantic last year. “It was not the judiciary, the civil society, the media, or the bureaucrats trying to engage in checks and balances against a legitimately elected government.”

And “a failed military coup” in 2016 — that may have been led by a former religious-political ally — led to Erdoğan solidifying power and cracking down on secular parts of the state in the military and universities and among political rivals. If Turkey still has a Deep State, it is in now hiding. If there hasn’t been one in years, Erdoğan still made use of its specter.

So is there a Deep State in the United States and if so where is it pointed? If the Deep State exists here, why would it be pointed at Trump? It is unlikely that a US Deep State sprung up during the Obama administration or that a Deep State reorients to protect a specific president or party with each election.

Deep States reputably protect some ideal, Turkey as secular and Russia as an adversary of the liberal, democratic West as examples.

We could argue Hoover had some version of America in his mind that was largely hostile to “undesirables,” such as African Americans, homosexuals, political radicals and activists as well as communists. Those were some of his main targets for abuses of power. Hoover feared he needed to spy on political activists on the left to prevent a Bolshevik-like revolution. Yet, history shows Hoover basically just harassed the political left instead of actually providing any real security

The Deep State is supposed to be a gun triggered when some failure of the political apparatus occurs that puts it in play for a purpose. If the purpose of a so-called US Deep State is to prevent a sitting president from undermining the United States, we need to be having different discussions about how to protect democracy.

The failure of Turkey’s alleged Deep State is a reminder that they are at best blunt instruments for security if they exist at all. Because they are wielded outside the social contracts of democracy, their effectiveness is largely suspect.

Now, it could also be argued that the current US security and intelligence machine in regards to the Trump administration is working exactly as it is intended to by law. That it is not, in fact, a shadowy apparatus as alleged, but a system that includes review by judges and oversight by Congress with vigorous debate by a mostly free press.

If we dismiss the idea of a US Deep State, we are still left with real questions about how we do counterintelligence when it involves Americans, and how to handle abuses of law when it involves a sitting president.

We must also now decide how we regulate big data companies and protect our privacy not just from abuses by the state but by corporate America.

The Plame affair reminded us spies are real. And the Trump investigation is reminding us that spying might be necessary. How we regulate, control, and oversee this part of our government are hard questions we should debate vigorously and constantly.

In a truly functioning democracy, voters should be the only Deep State there is.


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6 responses to “A Deep State: The Gun the US Doesn’t Have”

  1. Joy Comes says:

    This article totally confuses me. Did not Richard Armitage “confess,” even before Patrick Fitzgerald moved into his special prosecutor office, that it was he/Armitage who unintentionally “outed” Valerie Plame? Was Plame truly a COVERT agent? I read otherwise. The article seems to use the Plame fiasco to insinuate obstructionist motivations to Donald Trump–for “undermining the ‘determination’ (my quotes) by the intelligence community that Russia helped him win.” Rather, has Donald Trump not been put in the crosshairs of a deep state, in much the same way as Richard Nixon*, and with the same outcome hoped for?
    (*As detailed in chpts 10/11 of FAMILY SECRETS: The Bush Dynasty, AMERICA’S INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years”)

    • Jeff Clyburn says:

      Valerie Plame absolutely was a covert CIA officer with multiple operations ongoing at the time of her outing. She was an operations officer working on a top priority of the Bush Administration: searching out weapons proliferation (including the safety of Iraqi nuclear scientists). This is well-established by dozens of media entities as well as her eventual confession chronicled in the film “Fair Game.” The amplification of her outing was coordinated by multiple sources sympathetic to the Bush Administration, regardless of whether Armitage first mentioned it a mere 18 hours before Libby.

  2. Rk. barkhi says:

    I don’t know why the Deep State blog was written, much less published. Instead try using someone like Ed to write about the subject as his comments are accurate, clear and to the point. Very disappointed in www.

  3. Ed says:

    Let’s test my theory. Trump just announced that he will end military exercises with our allies in Asia and may withdraw all U.S. troops: “When the President of the United States announces unilaterally to the leader of North Korea that we are going to stop our military exercises with our allies, Japan and Korea, and does not first tell those allies … and then goes on to say that someday he’d like to get our troops out of Asia,” Green* said, “that’s an astonishing development.”

    (* Michael J Green is Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS.)

    Many praised Trump for pursuing dialogue over confrontation, but Trump’s move on military exercises reinforced concerns about his commitment to longstanding US alliances, particularly because he was offering a goal long sought by both Pyongyang and Beijing without consulting South Korea or Japan. Green said it was possible that the Pentagon could amend the President’s statement and say, “what the President meant was we’re not going to have heavy bombers in our exercises, or we’re not going to escalate them because we’re under a diplomatic process right now… But we’ve not had a president talk about pulling the troops home in over half a century.”

    If I’m right, Trump will soon be out of office, in one way or another, or he will simply be overruled by the Deep State and have to reverse course.

  4. Ed says:

    The Deep State in the U.S. exists to ensure that a policy of aggressive global domination (military, political and economic) remains in place, both for ideological reasons and for the benefits it generates for its key constituencies. Anyone or any movement that challenges that policy is neutralized, either through disruption, behind the scenes maneuvering, orchestration of policy and public opinion using clandestine networks of operatives, police crackdowns, election tampering, co-option, blackmail, dirty tricks or, if necessary, assassination of uncontrollable individuals who pose a serious threat to its power.