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

The Plame affair reminded us spies are real. And the Trump investigation is reminding us that spying might be necessary ... but a sophisticated intelligence apparatus is not necessarily a Deep State.

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’


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


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


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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