Attacking the “Deep State”

Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

by John Feffer

Donald Trump has many enemies. And he has long had an enemies list: all the people that he has attacked repeatedly in person, in print, and on Twitter.

But now Trump, as president, has drawn up a formal enemies list. At the top is John Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency who just had his security clearance revoked. The president has assembled a list of other top former officials that are next in line for similar treatment. This list includes former CIA head Michael Hayden, former FBI chief James Comey, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. It even includes a current Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr.

These top-level officials from several administrations are on Trump’s enemy list for any or all of the following reasons. They publically criticized the president. They’ve been connected to the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Or they’re simply a member of the “deep state.”

The “deep state” is the right-wing assertion that a shadowy group of people inside and outside of government are working together to thwart the Trump agenda. They are doing this by engaging in a “witch hunt” against the president by linking him to Russian misconduct. They are leaking information to the press. And they are throwing sand into the gears of state to slow down various Trump initiatives.

Unfortunately, the “deep state” narrative also has some appeal to progressives in the United States, who have long been concerned about the actions of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and other powerful institutions. They point to J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving head of the FBI, who accumulated enormous power in his position and ran undercover operations against such notable figures as Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the U.S. context, however, the “deep state” is a myth. The FBI, CIA, and NSA are indeed powerful institutions. But even when they have acted illegally, these organizations have done so at the behest of the president. Yes, there have been occasional rogue operations like Oliver North’s contra-supply network, but even this operation advanced rather than impeded presidential policy.

Granted, Donald Trump is a deeply unpopular figure in Washington power circles. Many federal employees are very unhappy with how Trump has reversed Obama-era policies on the environment, labor, education, and so on. They have released information to the press. They have tried to slow down some of Trump’s initiatives. But they are not united in a “deep state” conspiracy.

The intelligence and law enforcement communities fall into a different category. Special counsel Robert Mueller is heading an ongoing investigation into the various crimes and misdemeanors of the Trump cohort. The investigators are attempting to apply the rule of law even to the highest-ranking officials in the administration. Meanwhile, the intelligence community is concerned not just about the past actions of the Russian government to influence U.S. elections but the ongoing relationship between the White House and the Kremlin. Former members of these communities remain well respected and influential in Washington and overseas as well.

Trump’s “enemies list” is an effort to eliminate all vestiges of opposition to the president within the bureaucracy of law enforcement and the intelligence community. He’s interested not only in silencing his most vocal critics. To use the Chinese expression, Trump is killing the monkey to scare the chickens. He is punishing the most prominent and well-known figures in order to ensure that everyone in the FBI, CIA, NSA, NSC, and elsewhere toes the line. Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton is talking about reviewing the security clearances of more than four million people.

Trump’s actions are all too familiar. In Poland, when the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party took over, one of its first acts was to purge the military. It even conducted a raid on a counter-intelligence center in Warsaw to replace the head. More recently, the far right-wing government coalition partner in Austria, the Freedom Party, took advantage of its control of the Interior Ministry to raid the country’s intelligence service and fire many top officials. As a result, other intelligence services in Europe have stopped working with their Austrian counterparts. And in Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan popularized the phrase “deep state,” the president has ordered a thoroughgoing purge of the military, law enforcement, and intelligence.

In all of these cases, the ruling parties have been afraid of any threat to their control. Trump, too, wants only loyalists around him. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early Trump supporter, has earned repeated criticism from the president for not putting loyalty to Trump above the law.

In some countries, of course, powerful institutions threaten not just ruling parties but the very foundations of democracy. In South Korea, for instance, a notoriously conservative military intelligence unit drafted a memo in spring 2017 on mobilizing army units to suppress anti-government demonstrations in the event that the Constitutional Court overturned President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. The document hinted at the possibility of martial law and even a military coup.

Although a military coup is very unlikely to succeed in South Korea, such scenarios are far more commonplace in countries where a real “deep state” of anti-democratic forces is more powerful – such as Montenegro, Burkina Faso, Thailand, and Libya.

In the United States or Poland or Austria, however, the “deep state” doesn’t exist. It’s just a convenient story that leaders tell to scare the people and consolidate their own power. Enough Americans were fooled by Trump’s lies in 2016 to elect him. Let’s hope that they won’t be fooled again by his “enemies list” and his latest set of lies about the “deep state.”

Republished, with permission, from The Hankyoreh.

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.



  1. Mr. Feffer, it would have been helpful to your argument to define what you view as a “deep state.” I find it unpersuasive to argue that a deep state does not exist in the U.S. because the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and other powerful institutions obey the President’s orders. First, those agencies all operate in secrecy and hence are not accountable to the voters and — absent a definition for “deep state” — can still be viewed as a deep state for that reason.

    Second, any argument that the President unswervingly controls those agencies disappeared when Mr. Trump was inaugurated but those agencies’ Russia-Gate efforts continued. The agencies’ proper roles were usurped by staffers on a drive to impeach the President who you argue were controlled by him.

  2. I’ve read some solid, reasonable analysis by Feffer (like his creative side as well) and Lobelog does a great job delivering timely reviews of global developments and critiques of American foreign policy. The above piece, however, doesn’t seem to be up to his usual standards . . . I think “Trump hate/disgust” (Trump’s disastrous, of course) has likely outweighed Feffer’s ability to think through both viable “conceptions of power” (the Deep State) in the U.S. and faulty “overly sanguine” conceptions of the motivations of those in the so called “intelligence” community.

    Feffer’s descriptions of Trump’s “enemies list” among former National Security and Intel heavies is pretty standard — don’t know why he didn’t include James Clapper — and all those he mentions have been loyal to what can be justifiably called the “American global order,” and all have been almost certainly involved in various “duplicitous” actions to support it and their careers.

    Well Trump is a “dirtbag,” of course, but so is Brennan . . . (Bernhard at the MofA independent Analyst site succinctly recalls interesting highlights of Brennan’s career, all available in the public record, even including the term “deep state”) ” . . . deputy executive director of the CIA on 9/11 an intelligence failure or, as some have it, an incident arranged by the deep state. Brennan was CIA chief of staff while the agency concocted false stories about Iraqi WMD. He was within the line of command that ran the CIA torture program. It was Brennan who conspired with the Gulf dictators to hire Jihadis to destroy Libya and to attempt the same in Syria. In short – the man was always ruthless, incompetent and dishonest” (as some retired CIA analysts and operatives have attested).

    “When Obama became president he wanted to make Brennan Director of the CIA. The Democrats in Congress were opposed to that. Obama then made him his high priest of targeted killings. After Obama’s reelection, Brennan finally became director. He ordered the CIA to spy on the Congress committee investigating CIA torture. He lied to Congress under oath when he denied that it had happened. When it was proven that the CIA did what it did, he had to apologize.”

    But let’s not forget that Clapper, also, had to apologize for lying to Congress about NSA spying on the American population at large, etc. Both Brennan and Clapper are liars and we’re key Intel heavies who — realizing they were out in the cold with Clinton’s defeat — organized and produced the completely “evidence free” Jan 6 ICA Report on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Election directly attacking the Trumpster and his crew . . . and the Corporate Media ran with it from there. I was amazed at how sloppy and unprofessional it was when I read it courtesy of the NYTimes on January 6 (including 7 pages of whining about RT!).

    Yet what about the “Deep State” and what does the term mean? Apart from a general notion accompanying politics down thru history that refers to “secret” power players who influence titular governments behind the scenes . . . It’s been thrown around a lot in both left (initially) and lately in right circles since Mike Lofgren’s intriguing book “The Deep State: the Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government” was published in 2016. But why does Feffer reject out of hand the obvious features and players characterizing the “Deep State” active here in the U.S.? ERGO — powerful un-elected actors who along with the Executive Branch can make war or essentially do anything they want whenever they want in the pursuit of power, influence and profits (without permission from the “people”), including “national security” bureaucratic organizations the so called “intelligence community (who have endlessly lied us into wars),” gigantic corporations representing monopolies in defense, healthcare, energy, hi tech, and media, powerful lobbyists who control a supine Congress, including nations like Israel who literally dictates American Foreign Policy in the MEast, etc. I mean if this isn’t obvious, what is?

    I think Feffer, like many others (including myself), is really pissed off that a dangerous and unpredictable Trump sits atop the Executive Branch, which Americans have, over time, allowed to usurp increasing powers such that it essentially controls the direction of the country including both its economic and foreign policies. Certainly Neocon and Liberal Interventionist apologists and operatives and globalists of various persuasions (including those who delude themselves that America follows the “rule of law”) who support continuing American Empire are freaked out that Trump is in control because he is actually hastening the demise and disintegration of the American led global order by alienating allies, engaging in self destructive trade wars, and threatening other big powers, etc.

    Again, this is one of the main reasons that Brennan and Clapper — with cooperating Clintonistas and players in the Obama Admn et. al. — cranked up the “Russiagate” narrative, and this is obvious as well. As detestable as Trump is, he is right about the so called “witch hunt” (fishing expedition) targeting him arranged by establishment political elites (and supported by millions of regular folks to be sure) tied to the so called “deep state” (at least the aims of the deep state) to foist Mueller (also a loyal functionary of the Established Order) upon him. So far — even if direct collusion with nasty Russians can’t be proven — the key aim is to build up as many “process crimes” (Trump’s stock in trade, alas) as possible until, hopefully, critical mass will be attained. Then what, eh? Pence??? Think about that for a while! I’d say we’re screwed until 2020 if we make it that far . . .

  3. I would argue it a shallow state conspiracy. Appointed political animals do what they can with the power and time available to them. If the rank and file of the GSA and inspector general’s office were involved, well… That would be a deep state conspiracy

  4. The “Deep State” is that portion of the public service that uses whatever power they possess to survive a change they oppose. That group instinctively opposes moves to reduce program budgets, or employees. It tends to be Democratic. Statistical verification can be gauged by noting that public unions are the major funders of the Democratic Party.

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