Marc Ambinder, a fellow at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, is a co-author of “ Deep State.”
President 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 of governance — 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 them, their ties to previous administrations and their degree of independence.
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. And according to some on the left, including civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald, deep-state officials want to make sure Russia remains an enemy of the United States.
The reality is that the deep state is a major, hidden amplifier of national security policy that is 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 the homeland 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 quickly into a state-sanctioned torture regime, because the Bush administration wanted it to work and assumed it was working. The policy was approved at the highest levels of our government by citizens we elected to serve us. Congressional leaders knew the gist of what was happening, even if they didn’t get all the details.
If President Trump decides to reach out to Vladimir Putin, the deep state will help him, even if the product of its intelligence-gathering suggests wariness and caution. These operations are merely meant to assist difficult political choices made by the executive branch.
As former congressman Alan Grayson put it, oversight “is a joke.” Congress has neither the staff nor the remit to direct or micromanage the execution of national security policy. And 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 sent to (and from) U.S. citizens abroad; and the CIA ran an entire 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 for the intelligence and defense worlds. Military policy, defense spending, 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 in our democracy 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.
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 this month.
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 can be curtailed. And policy can be 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 “zero day” (or previously unknown) vulnerabilities found by its hackers.
The president has complained a number of times about those perfidious spies and their dangerous secrets, saying they have illegally disclosed classified information to the press. And yes, people with security clearances occasionally leak classified information to the media. 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. The knowledge we have about the inner workings of Trump’s White House appears to be coming from his own top aides. We have no way of knowing whether the officials who told reporters that 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.
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.” And John F. Kennedy was shaken enough about the CIA’s own sense of grandeur that he appointed his brother to oversee all covert operations.
While Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” was white, male, Christian and ruled by a priesthood that sanctified nuclear doctrine above all else, the national security bureaucracy today is professionalized, rule-based and highly diverse. It is organized around counterterrorism.
Furthermore, the deep state contains multitudes, and they 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 constituent parts of the deep state often do not align. They do not form one conspiracy.