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The Term “Deep State” in Focus: Usage Examples, Definition and Phrasebook

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By: Lambert Strether, Corrente |

“It’s called the ruling class because it rules.” –Arthur Silber

Readers know that I’ve been more than dubious about that incredibly virulent earworm of a term, “deep state” (December 1, 2014). However, in the last week or so, “deep state” is all over mainstream discourse like kudzu, and so it’s time to look at it again. As we shall see, it’s no more well-defined than before, but I’m hoping that if we aggregate a number of usage examples, we’ll come up with a useful set of properties, and a definition. Following the aggregation, I’ll propose a number of phrases that I hope can attenuate deep state‘s virulence, and render it a sharper and more subtle analytical tool in posts and comments.

While the usage of “deep state” exploded last week after General Flynn’s defenestration by Trump, it seems likely to me that the term had been spreading in the recent past before that, given that a series of politically motivated leaks by the “intelligence community” (IC) from summer 2016 onwards could colorably be attributed to such an entity. The examples are in no particular order; I haven’t had the time to find a “patient zero.”

Usage Examples of “Deep State”

1. The Atlantic. Since “deep state” as a term originated in Turkey (derin devlet), I’ll start with a Turkish analyst:

There Is No American ‘Deep State’

Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish sociologist and writer at the University of North Carolina, tweeted a string of criticisms about the analogy Friday morning. “Permanent bureaucracy and/or non-electoral institutions diverging with the electoral branch [is] not that uncommon even in liberal democracies,” she wrote. “In the Turkey case, that’s not what it means. There was a shadowy, cross-institution occasionally *armed* network conducting killings, etc. So, if people are going to call non electoral institutions stepping up leaking stuff, fine. But it is not ‘deep state’ like in Turkey.”

Comment: One danger I always face is projecting American politics onto other countries. Tufekci warns us the opposite is a bad idea too!

Properties: Permanent bureaucracy and/or non-electoral institutions; “shadowy,” cross-institutional. We cross out “conducting killings” for the American context (or do we?).

2. Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now!. Greenwald thinks the term is sloppy too (though “scientific” is a high bar):

The deep state, although there’s no precise or scientific definition, generally refers to the agencies in Washington that are permanent power factions. They stay and exercise power even as presidents who are elected come and go. They typically exercise their power in secret, in the dark, and so they’re barely subject to democratic accountability, if they’re subject to it at all. It’s agencies like the CIA, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies, that are essentially designed to disseminate disinformation and deceit and propaganda, and have a long history of doing not only that, but also have a long history of the world’s worst war crimes, atrocities and death squads. This is who not just people like Bill Kristol, but lots of Democrats are placing their faith in, are trying to empower, are cheering for as they exert power separate and apart from—in fact, in opposition to—the political officials to whom they’re supposed to be subordinate.

Comment: Later in the show, Greenwald says that the deep state is “almost engag[ing] in like a soft coup.” Here’s the Kristol tweet to which Greenwald alludes, explicitly applauding that coup with the bracing clarity so foreign to most Democrats:

I characterized Greenwald’s soft coup — and Kristol’s — more delicately as “a change in the Constitutional Order” (“Federalist 68, the Electoral College, and Faithless Electors”) but the sense is the same.

Properties: Kristol, not normal, not democratic, not constitutional; Greenwald: permanent power factions, agencies, especially intelligence agencies, which specialize in deception and require secrecy.

3. Peggy Noonan, Patriot Post:

Is [the current chaos], as some suggest, “deep state” revenge for the haughty, dismissive way Donald Trump spoke of the U.S. intelligence community during and after the campaign? … Is it driven by the antipathy of the permanent government toward Mr. Putin, and a desire to bring down those, like Mr. Trump, who hope for closer relations with Russia? …

It is a terrible thing if suddenly, in America, there is a government within the government that hates the elected government — and that secretly, silently, and with no accountability, acts on it.

Properties: Government within a government; secret; not accountable.

4. Breitbart. I don’t normally cite to Breitbart, but since they’re in the heart of the battle and have a usage example:

The “deep state” is jargon for the semi-hidden army of bureaucrats, officials, retired officials, legislators, contractors and media people who support and defend established government policies.

Comment: Interestingly, Breitbart finds it necessary to define the term for its readership, meaning it didn’t originate on the right. Even more interestingly, Breitbart — very much unlike the more staid Peggy Noonan — urges, in my view correctly, that actors outside the alphabet agencies need to be considered.

Properties: Bureaucrats, officials (some retired), legislators, contractors, media. Brietbart doesn’t use Janine Werel’s term, Flexian — retired officials become talking heads, for example — but the concept is implicit.

5. Jefferson Morley, Alternet:

What Is the ‘Deep State’—And Why Is It After Trump?

The Deep State is shorthand for the nexus of secretive intelligence agencies whose leaders and policies are not much affected by changes in the White House or the Congress. While definitions vary, the Deep State includes the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and components of the State Department, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the armed forces.

With a docile Republican majority in Congress and a demoralized Democratic Party in opposition, the leaders of the Deep State are the most—perhaps the only—credible check in Washington on what Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) calls Trump’s “wrecking ball presidency.”

And Roger Stone, a man who knows his memes:

“This is an effort by the Deep State to destabilize the president,” Stone said.

Comment: Morley, then, agrees with Kristol (the “only check” in Trump).

Properties: Intelligence agencies; permanent.

6. Greg Grandin, The Nation. A useful review of the literature:

What Is the Deep State?

So at least as long as there has been private property, there has been private plotting, and talk of a “deep state” has been a vernacular way of describing what political scientists like to call “civil society,” that is, any venue in which powerful individuals, either alone or collectively, might try to use the state to fulfill their private ambitions, to get richer and obtain more power….

Much of the writing frames the question as Trump versus the Deep State, but even if we take the “deep state” as a valid concept, surely it’s not useful to think of the competing interests it represents as monolithic, as David Martin in an e-mail suggests. Big Oil and Wall Street might want deregulation and an opening to Russia. The euphemistically titled “intelligence community” wants a ramped-up war footing. High-tech wants increased trade. … In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote that “the conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organizations.” If nothing else, the “Trump v. Deep State” framings show that unity is long gone.

Comment: Grandin does give an early usage example, but I’m totally unpersuaded by his identification of the “deep state” with “civil society.” Rather — as Breitbart, amazingly enough, suggests — the deep state more plausibly includes components of civil society (media, contractors, etc.).

Properties: Not monolithic; includes (components of) civil society.

7. Benjamin Wallace, The New Yorker:

The Deep-State Theory Cuts Both Ways

This pattern of dissent [“#TheResistance”], and its early successes, has brought about a vogue for the theory of the deep state, usually used in analyzing authoritarian regimes, in which networks of people within the bureaucracy are said to be able to exercise a hidden will of their own…

The federal government employs two million people; its sympathies move in more than one direction. While many federal employees may want to oppose the White House, others (especially border-patrol and immigration agents, whose support Trump often cited on the campaign trail) have already been taking some alarming liberties to advance the President’s politics.

Comment: Wallace urges that some Federal employees in the permanent bureaucracy are, in essence, “working toward the Fuhrer,” which is a consequence of the deep state not being monolithic. He attributes the “vogue” for “deep state” to the resistance, but I (and most others cited here) think it’s the Flynn firing.

Properties: Bureaucratic networks; hidden.

8. Counterpunch

A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup

So who or what is the Deep State?

It’s the militarized police, which have joined forces with state and federal law enforcement agencies in order to establish themselves as a standing army. It’s the fusion centers and spy agencies that have created a surveillance state and turned all of us into suspects. It’s the courthouses and prisons that have allowed corporate profits to take precedence over due process and justice. It’s the military empire with its private contractors and defense industry that is bankrupting the nation. It’s the private sector with its 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances, ‘a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government.’ It’s what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren refers to as ‘a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies’: the Department of Defense, the State Department, Homeland Security, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Treasury, the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a handful of vital federal trial courts, and members of the defense and intelligence committees.”

Comment: Seems pretty big to be deep…

Properties: Law enforcement, contractors, agencies, the courts.

9. New York Times

As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America

Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.

In countries like Egypt, Mr. El Amrani said, the line is much clearer.

There, “the deep state is not official institutions rebelling,” he said, but rather “shadowy networks within those institutions, and within business, who are conspiring together and forming parallel state institutions.”

Comment: Weird all around: The President is the President, the Chief Magistrate of the United States. He’s not the “nation’s leader,” like in the title of sone kinda hardback in the “Business” section of your airport bookstore. And quite frankly, the description of the deep state in Egypt (“shadowy network,” “parallel state institutions”) jibes with a several of the other usage examples I’ve collected, right here in the United States.

Properties: I’ll use Egypt’s! Network, shadowy, businesses forming parallel state institutions.

10. Marc Ambinder, NPR:

With Intelligence Leaks, The ‘Deep State’ Resurfaces

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you define the deep state?

AMBINDER: Well, I try to define it simply – maybe the national security and intelligence bureaucracy, the secret-keepers in the United States, people who have security clearances, who have spent 10 to 20 to 30 years working in and around secrets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when we’re hearing about this term this week to do with Michael Flynn, what do we – what are people making that connection with potentially a huge group of people and this particular case?

AMBINDER: They’re essentially alleging that the national security state, this metastate that exists and, again, traffics totally in secret – used its collective power in order to bring down a duly chosen national security adviser because they disagreed with him or they disagreed with his president or they disagreed with his policies. It is a term of derision, a term that suggests people are using their power for ill-begotten ends. And that, if true, sets up a crisis.

Comment: Ambinder, then, rejects putting a “civil society” construction on “deep state.” (He also rejects Greenwald, and Kristol’s, “soft coup.”)

Properties: National security and intelligence bureaucracy; long-term.

11. Marc Ambinder, Foreign Policy. Ambinder gives an example of the deep state in action:

Trump Is Showing How the Deep State Really Works

The fact the nation’s now-departed senior guardian of national security was unmoored by a scandal linked to a conversation picked up on a wire offers a rare insight into how exactly America’s vaunted Deep State works. It is a story not about rogue intelligence agencies running amok outside the law, but rather about the vast domestic power they have managed to acquire within it.

Sometime before January 12, the fact that these [Flynn’s] conversations [with the Russian ambassador] had occurred was disclosed to David Ignatius, who wrote about them. That day, Sean Spicer asked Flynn about them. Flynn denied that the sanctions were discussed. A few days later, on January 16, Vice President Mike Pence repeated Flynn’s assurances to him that the calls were mostly about the logistics of arranging further calls when Trump was President.

Comment: Note the lack of agency in “was disclosed.” Had the deep state not been able to use David Ignatius as a cut-out, the scandal would never have occured. Therefore, a media figure, a member of civil society, was essential to the operation of the Deep State, even though Ambinder’s definition of the deep state doesn’t reflect this.

Properties: Network; civil society.

* * *
So now I’m going to aggregate the properties suggested by these 10 sources, and make some judgements about what to keep and what to throw away. Throwing out Noonan’s concept of “a government within a government”, I get this. The deep state:

1. Gains power through (legal) control of state functions of secrecy and deception

2. Is “permanent”

3. Is not monolithic

4. Is composed of “cross-institutional” networks of individuals in both state (agencies, law enforcement) and civil society (media, contractors)

5. Is not democratic in its operation; and (potentially) is not accountable, not normal, not constitutional.

(Individuals within the deep state belong to factions that compete and cooperate, often in addition to their “day jobs,” rather as in a “matrix management” construct.)

So, what’d I miss?

A “Deep State” Phrasebook

So, here are some phrases to use that reflect the above — very tentative — understanding. What I really want to do — and who know, maybe I’m trying to shovel back the tide here, too — is get away from the notion of “the” deep state. The deep state is not monolithic! Factional conflict within the deep state exists! So, in my view, the definite article is in this case disempowering; it prevents you from, as it were, knowing your enemy. So, if I have to join the chorus of people using the term, I’m going to think carefully about how do it. This list is a step toward doing that. (I’m going to use examples from the run-up to the Iraq War because it’s less tendenitious and way less muddled than the Flynn defenestration.)

1. “Deep State Blooper”. I’m putting this first as an antidote to CT. Quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“…[I]t occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error.”

It’s important to put into our thinking right from the start that Deep State actors are not all-powerful, and that Deep State operations are not invariably successful. I mean, can anybody look at the foreign and nationally security outcomes from what these guys are doing and urge that the baseline for performance is very high? I don’t think so. Accidents happen all the time, and these guys, for all the power their positions bring them, are accident-prone. (After all, they’re not accountable, so they never get accurate feedback, in a typical Banana Republic power dynamic.

Example: “The Iraq WMD’s yellowcake uranium episode was a Deep State Blooper.” (See here for details; the yellowcake uranium was part of the Bush administration’s WMD propaganda operation to foment the Iraq War.)

2. “Deep State Operation”. I think it’s important to view the Deep State (as defined above) as able to act opportunistically; although many Deep State Actors work for agencies, their operations are not bureaucratic in nature.

Example: “The White House Iraq Group was a Deep State propaganda operation that succeeded tactically but failed strategically” (See here for details; the WHIG planted stories in the press to foment the Iraq War. They succeeded in that narrow goal, but the war itself was a debacle, and the damage to the credibility of the press as an institution took a hit.)

3. “Deep State Actor”. An individual can be a member of the Deep State as an official, and then later as media personality or contractor. (It also seems to me that once you have been within the intelligence community, you can never be said to have left it, since how could anyone know you have really left?

Example: “Leon Panetta is a consummate Deep State Actor.” (Panetta has been OMB Director, CIA Director, White House Chief of Staff, and Secretary of Defense. “[Panetta] regularly obtains fees for speaking engagements, including from the Carlyle Group.[55] He is also a supporter of Booz Allen Hamilton.”

4. “Deep State Faction”. This is a no-brainer:

Example: “The Neoconservatives are a Deep State Faction.”


I apologize for the length as I fought my way through the material, and I hope I haven’t made any gross errors — especially political science-y ones! And any further additions to the Deep State Phraseology will be very welcome (but watch those definite articles!).

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The post The Term “Deep State” in Focus: Usage Examples, Definition and Phrasebook appeared first on The Sleuth Journal.


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