The Deep State.

Anyone who paid attention to the Egyptian coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, or to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s battering of the Turkish military, civil bureaucracy, and intellectuals after a failed coup will have encountered the term “deep state.”  It refers to networks of officers, bureaucrats, journalists, and businessmen who actually control government by concerted actions behind the scenes.[1]  The “deep state” endures across generations, rather than being a momentary conspiracy; it recruits its members by invitation, rather than by public competition; and it is inherently un-democratic, both in its means of operation and its ability to manipulate the course of elected governments.  However, Middle Eastern societies seem particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

Now the term has surfaced in American politics.   Breitbart News, other right-wing web-sites, and the social media feeds of many Trump supporters have been using the term for a while now.  When President Trump’s supposed “grey eminence,” Steve Bannon, used the term “administrative state” in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the New York Times construed his words to refer to the “deep state.”[2]  Newt Gingrich seemed to be playing Charlie McCarthy to Bannon’s Edgar Bergen when he said that “We’re up against a permanent bureaucratic structure defending itself and quite willing to break the law to do so.”  Their aim is to undermine the Trump presidency.   Some even see this conspiracy as being directed by former President Barack Obama, who announced his willingness to break the traditional silence of former presidents when the new administration threatened “our core values.”[3]  (This view ignores the roll-out of

Former Obama administration government officials rushed to denounce the charge, albeit in circumspect language.  One said that “deep state” is “a phrase we’ve used for Turkey and other countries like that, but not for the American republic.”[4]  Another expressed surprise that a president would suggest that civil servants would try to undermine the government.  So, that’s settled.[5]   The NYT sought to normalize this as habitual Republican back-biting.

What gets lost in this unseemly mud-slinging is the pedigree of the issue.  In his 1959 farewell address Dwight Eisenhower warned of a “military-industrial complex.”  In the 1960s and again in the last few years, well-informed people have analyzed the power of the national security bureaucracy.  Sandwiched in between these Jeremiads, the journalist-turned-open-novelist Fletcher Knebel hit the best-seller lists with “Seven Days in May” (1962), about a military coup, and “The Night of Camp David” (1965), about a crazy president.  More recently, Chalmers Johnson published three books on the costs of “empire.”  Democracy was chief among them.[6]  Well-informed people haven’t taken the issue as a joke.  Even if everyone else does.

Is there a “deep state” in America?  Of course not.  What seems more likely, and disturbing, is that there is a momentary open quarrel between a president and the national security professionals.   Would such a quarrel precipitate the formation of a “deep state”?

[1] If this is true, then the common public discourse and action beloved of academics has little real meaning.  Instead, the books on the shelves of junior army officers and school principals, and conferences on the middle floors of government ministries or dinner meetings in private homes hold the key to understanding events.

[2] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “’Deep State’?  Until Now It Was a Foreign Concept,” NYT, 7 March 2017.

[3] It is worth comparing these remarks with the boom in sales of dystopian novels to alarmed Democrats.

[4] OK, so what’s the American term?  The NYT reporter did not ask.

[5] Although it doesn’t seem to have been the Russkies who leaked to the press news compromising National Security Adviser-for-a-Day Michael Flynn.

[6] See:;and


            David Wise (1930- ) went into the newspaper business as soon as he got out of college. Working for the “New York Herald-Tribune,” he became its White House correspondent in 1960. He served as the paper’s Washington bureau chief from 1963 to 1966. Wise came to know a lot of people and a bunch of them were in the intelligence community. The CIA, NSA, and Defense Department are as much a snake-pit of personal rivalries and tortured consciences as anywhere else. People told Wise things and gave him leads. Nobody ever got paid for just sitting around, so Wise ran down the leads. He published a series of books on what he found out.
            The books revealed to the reading public details of the development of the U-2 spy-plane; CIA efforts to overthrow hostile governments (Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Indonesia); and covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.[1] Subsequently, he moved on to books on the struggle between Soviet intelligence (KGB) and its American opponents (CIA, FBI).[2]
            However, three of Wise’s books had a longer half-life in American politics than did his topical works on espionage. The Invisible Government, in 1964; The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power (1973); and The American Police State: The Government Against the People (1976), all raised alarms about the growing power of the career professionals in agencies charged with protecting America from enemies. Wise warned against the encroachment of intelligence and police professionals on powers that traditionally were the responsibility of democratically elected officials. These books resonated with the public because of the times in which they were published. The “Pentagon Papers,” the fall of President Richard Nixon over the “Watergate” scandal; and the hearings chaired by Senator Frank Church on the intelligence community all inspired alarm among American citizens. Subsequently, the alarm died down after various reforms were put in place.

Recent events have revived concern. The 9/11 attacks, the war with Islamists, and the revelations by Edward Snowden all have contributed to concern about the erosion of individual civil rights and democratic government. This time the herald comes from academia.

Echoing David Wise lo these many years, Michael Glennon[3] argues that the elected officials charged with oversight of the government bureaucracy have abdicated their role. In part, this abdication springs from deference to experts on complicated issues.[4] In part, this abdication results from the decay of Congress from a participant in shared government to a freak-show. Without rigorous oversight and with the best of intentions, the national security organizations that were created to fight the Cold War with the Soviet Union have not only escaped control, but have actually gained the upper hand over constitutional government. The national security experts control the formulation of policy choices laid before the Executive. These same organizations help draft the laws that the Legislature passes; they then implement (or ignore) that legislation. They serve up the rationales for actions which the Judiciary usually approves. The National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff figure as the big dogs in what Wise would have called a “secret government.”

[1] The U-2 Affair, with Thomas B. Ross (1962); The Invisible Government, with Thomas B. Ross (1964); The Espionage Establishment, with Thomas B. Ross (1967).

[2] Molehunt: the secret search for traitors that shattered the CIA (1992); Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 million (1995); Spy: The Inside Story on How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America (2002).

[3] Michael Glennon, National Security and Double Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 20 14).

[4] Pearl Harbor and 9/11 loom over this deference like a mushroom cloud.