The modern history of the “deep state” in American politics — real or imagined — starts with real leaks of classified information and ends as a conspiracy theory on popular yet dubious websites.
And how it got there raises serious questions about whether the intelligence community is trying to subvert a new president or whether it’s a convenient scapegoat for an administration that’s had its share of early foibles.
A deep state is a network of influential members of a government’s agencies or military who operate against a democratically elected government. It might work to undermine an elected president’s authority or legitimacy and has been common in countries such as Egypt and Turkey.
The concern in the US started shortly after Donald Trump took office. In early February, The New York Times and The Washington Post published a series of explosive reports about the intelligence community’s investigations into the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian officials during the 2016 election.
The reports, citing anonymous officials, revealed that then national-security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed US sanctions on Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office, despite Flynn’s claims that he and Kislyak had not discussed anything sensitive during their phone calls.
The next day, The Times broke a story on what it said were “repeated contacts” that Trump associates had with Russian officials during the campaign. CNN published another report that night in which sources said communication between Trump associates and Russian officials during the campaign was “constant.”
Flynn resigned a short time later.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions later had to recuse himself from any Department of Justice investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia after additional leaks revealed that he had also had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
An American deep state?
The steady drip of classified leaks about President Trump’s young administration has led some to speculate about the beginnings of an American deep state.
The term is derived from the Turkish “derin devlet,” which refers to an intricate network made up of government officials, often including those from the military and intelligence communities, whose primary goal is to subvert a democratically elected leader’s agenda and ultimately remove that leader from power.
Turkey’s deep state is tethered to the army but consists of elements from the intelligence community, the judiciary, and the mafia. Turkish leaders, like current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have waged political campaigns aimed at inciting public anger against the deep state.
In Egypt, less than a year after former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was elected into office by the people, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, backed by Egypt’s military might, detained Morsi and toppled his government. El-Sisi is now Egypt’s head of state. El-Sisi’s ascent to power is thought by many to have been the result of an Egyptian deep state’s response to the 2011 Arab Spring.
But experts and former government officials have warned against using the term deep state to refer to rifts between the US president and the intelligence community.
The deep state, as it exists in Turkey and Egypt, has two defining characteristics, Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider. First, it involves cooperation across multiple government agencies, like intelligence officials, military officials, and often executive branch officials. Second, the execution of the deep state’s agenda often results in bloody outcomes.
“You see dramatic results like assassinations, mass killings, pogroms, bombings — it’s not about tension between the executive and the bureaucracy, it’s not about a failure to work together,” Erdemir said, adding that he would recommend “extreme caution” in adapting the term “deep state” from other political cultures and applying it to the US.
“‘Deep state’ I would never use,” Michael Hayden, the former CIA director who served under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, told MSNBC in March. “That’s a phrase we’ve used for Turkey and other countries like that, but not the American republic.”
From the fringe to Washington
But soon after the possibility of the beginnings of an American deep state was first raised by the mainstream media, the idea took hold of the far-right media, quickly reaching a fever pitch.
“The Deep State Bumps off General Flynn. Who’s Next?” blared a February Breitbart headline after the resignation of Flynn. The article pointed to the mainstream media as an arm of the deep state, saying that the “ultimate target, of course, is Trump himself.”
InfoWars editor at large Paul Joseph Watson recorded a segment posted to YouTube in early March titled “The Deep State War on Trump.”
“Purge your administration of this globalist fifth column. There can be no compromise. These people literally want to overthrow a democratically elected government,” Watson said.
From the fringe, the idea of a deep state working against the Trump administration made its way to the mainstream conservative media.
Fox News host and ardent Trump supporter Sean Hannity reiterated Watson’s words during a segment that aired a week after Watson’s video was posted on YouTube. “Tonight, it’s time for the Trump administration to purge these saboteurs before it’s too late,” Hannity said, referring to “deep-state Obama-holdover government bureaucrats who are hell bent on destroying this president.”
And from there, the fears of an American deep state powered by intelligence leaks, which started out as mild speculation and reached the heights of conspiracy theory, made their way to the halls of Washington.
Trump has repeatedly and emphatically expressed his belief that there has been a concerted effort, fuelled by politicians, those within the intelligence community, and the “fake news” media, to undermine his presidency and policy agenda.
He notably accused the former president, without evidence, of personally ordering the surveillance of phones at Trump Tower. Trump likely made the accusation based on a monologue by far-right radio talk-show host Mark Levin and a Breitbart write-up of Levin’s belief that there is a “silent coup” underway to overthrow Trump.
Trump’s cold war with the intelligence community
The president has also publicly castigated the media and the intelligence community.
“Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologise!” Trump tweeted in February, shortly after Flynn resigned. “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” he said.
In a meeting later with several members of Congress, he added: “We’re going to find the leakers, and they’re going to pay a big price.”
As the media continued publishing classified information, Trump tweeted that “information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” he continued. “Very un-American!”
Trump’s loyalists quickly followed his lead, pointing to the intelligence leaks as a key piece of evidence they say supports the existence of an American deep state. They have also consistently singled out Trump’s chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, as a source of knowledge on the American deep state.
“We are talking about the emergence of a deep state led by Barack Obama, and that is something that we should prevent,” Iowa Rep. Steve King told The New York Times. “The person who understands this best is Steve Bannon, and I would think that he’s advocating to make some moves to fix it.”
Echoing Hannity’s and Watson’s words, King later said that Trump “needs to purge the leftists within the administration that are holdovers from the Obama administration, because it appears that they are undermining his administration and his chances of success.”
Trump adviser and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also believes in the deep state and said he discussed the concept with Bannon. “Of course, the deep state exists. There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president,” Gingrich told the Associated Press in March.
“This is what the deep state does: They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie and then deny that they were behind the lie,” Gingrich said.
He added that he and Bannon had discussed the idea and that Bannon compared its perils to the plot of the new season of “Homeland,” which includes a storyline in which career intelligence officials try to undermine the president-elect.
Though Bannon has never used the term “deep state” publicly, he has repeatedly expressed distrust toward American institutions and the intelligence community.
After he was removed from his post on the National Security Council in April, Bannon said that he was put on the council to “ensure that it was de-operationalized,” and added that the NSC has now returned “to its proper function.”
‘There have always been scandals … this is not new’
Despite the theories and headlines, the leaking of classified information is not all that unusual and not enough to prompt suspicions of a legitimate deep state in the US, according to former intelligence officials.
Intelligence leaks “happened during the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, and long before that,” Bob Deitz, a former NSA and CIA veteran who worked under presidents Clinton and Bush, told Business Insider.
“It’s possible that they came from directly within the White House, perhaps from people from the intelligence community on loan to the White House,” he added. While the classified leaks that have been published in the media have reflected poorly on the administration, “there are a lot of leaks from people in the White House that reflect badly on them. Just look at all the reports of infighting between Bannon and Kushner,” Deitz said.
“There have always been scandals,” Glenn Carle, a former CIA clandestine services officer and an expert on national security, told Business Insider. “The torture black sites were leaked, the Pentagon Papers were leaked, the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident was leaked. This is not new.”
Both Carle and Deitz added that more often than not, leaks of classified information come from the Hill. “It is rare for them to come from the rank-and-file of the CIA” or other intelligence agencies, Carle said.
‘If you serve the state, you betray it. If you betray the state, you betray it’
The dangers of a president and his allies believing in the existence of a covert effort to undermine him are profound, experts say, and it has placed those in the intelligence community in a tough position.
“The president has cast doubt on proven truths, undermined the laws, undermined the judiciary, the free press, the intelligence community,” Carle said. “He’s undermined the very values upon which this society was built. So, what do you do if you’re an intelligence official? If you serve the state, you betray it. If you betray the state, you betray it,” he continued.
This dilemma, Carle said, has been widely discussed among those in the intelligence community, who have been forced to assess which is the greater threat: Trump’s “authoritarian tendencies” which threaten “the fabric of the nation,” or the clear national-security risks posed by a sustained stream of classified information being made public.
In this particular situation, in which the president of the US’s campaign surrogates are under an active counterintelligence investigation for their suspected ties to a foreign power, “when leaks come from the intelligence community, it’s not to undermine the president or to protect the deep state. It’s to protect democracy — it stems from a sense of profound patriotism,” Carle said.
Whatever the cause, classified information being leaked on a prolonged basis is treacherous, because it can send a message to the broader US intelligence community and government officials that leaking information is permissible.
“Everybody knows the White House has leaked information in pursuit of various foreign policy objectives throughout American history. When people see that, they might think, ‘So, leaks are OK when the White House does it, but not OK if they come from somewhere other than the White House,'” Deitz said. “You lose the moral high ground.”
A ‘gold mine’ for foreign intelligence
There are a number of national-security risks that can result from tension between a president who believes he’s being undermined and the government officials or agencies who find themselves the target of that president’s ire.
“By definition, information is classified because its release could jeopardize national security,” Deitz said, adding that while there are instances of over-classification, “people cannot decide for themselves what information is OK to leak and what isn’t. It doesn’t work that way.”
If the administration continues to publicly attack the intelligence community based on the belief that the national security apparatus is working against it, that could also open doors to hostile foreign powers looking to infiltrate American society.
“I spent my career exploiting the positions into which foreign officials were placed when they wanted the best for their society and wanted to uphold the oaths they made to their laws, and yet, the actions of their government undermined the very oaths they took,” said Carle.
Now, he said, American intelligence officials may well be in the same position.
“This is a gold mine of opportunity for foreign intelligence services,” he said.
There are other national-security risks posed by the actions of a president who believes in the existence of a shadow government. In some cases, it has placed intelligence officials in the position of having to determine whether they can share information with their commander-in-chief.
In February, for instance, The Wall Street Journal reported that US intelligence officials had withheld some sensitive information from the president. Though information has been withheld from presidents and congressional members in the past, officials told The Journal none of those past decisions were affected by concerns about a president’s trustworthiness or discretion. This decision to withhold information from Trump highlighted the “deep mistrust” between Trump and the intelligence community.
And if the rift between a White House that believes it’s being undermined by the institutions designed to serve American interests and those institutions themselves continues to widen, the risks to national security could be almost as severe as those posed by a legitimate deep state.
“The deep state does not exist in fact but it exists in the minds of Trump supporters. That’s just as much a threat to society,” Carle said.
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