I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means

There’s been considerable pushback on the idea that a Deep State has undercut the Trump Administration (most notably by leaking information about calls between Trump insiders and Russian officials.) The New York Times yesterday, for example, published an article calling the “Deep State” a foreign concept:

The concept of a “deep state” — a shadowy network of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy — is more often used to describe countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements band together to undercut democratically elected leaders.

This seems a little risible in general (who was J. Edgar Hoover if not the Deep State incarnate?), but part of the problem might be that we are looking for the wrong term. A Good Old American version of a very similar concept with slightly different political valence might be the Military Industrial Complex, which President Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, warned against in terms barely different from those declaiming the Deep State today:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government….In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. [Discusses the influence of federal research on academic research.] The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

The New York Times, until recently, was in agreement with Eisenhower about the threat the military-industrial complex poses, listing over 1,500 articles using the phrase and, for example, agreeing  in 1985 with the leader of the USSR when he criticized the military-industrial complex’s influence:


While arms contractors don’t have the same prominence and prestige they once did, a great deal of what we conceive of as the actions of the national security state today are still in fact the work of private contractors; when Edward Snowden exfiltrated his troves of documents about global surveillance, for example, he was working for Booz Allen Hamilton and Dell, not the CIA. And the CIA’s plots to turn into surveillance devices all of our phones and even Samsung Smart TVs are surely their own kind of military-industrial complex. Here’s my little unsophisticated doodle of how I think federal policymaking works:

Deep State

Clearly, there’s a “How a Bill Becomes a Law” quality about all of this; now that Congress is more-or-less a vestigial organ of government and almost all policymaking is done by the Executive Branch, contained intermittently by the courts, carried out by contractors, and acting on plans conceived largely by think tanks and academia, how much democratic accountability do we even expect?

There’s something irritating as well, of course, about newspapers acquiring breathless naivete about the influence of institutions they’ve spent decades decrying. Much like the “new-found respect” for the CIA or for George W. Bush, it leads one to suspect that either they are the world’s worst liars, or as Obama’s adviser Ben Rhodes bragged to the Times last year, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Amusingly enough, yesterday Ben Rhodes became the most prominent member of the Obama Administration to deny that a Deep State exists, stating that “Claims of a ‘deep state’ are offensive to both US civil servants and the people in other countries who actually experience oppression.”


Ah…offensive even to imagine a Deep State exists!

5 thoughts on “I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means

  1. Just because you cannot accurately measure something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We see the secondary effects of the military-industrial complex/deep state/shadow government/puppet government, but cannot measure it directly. Think of it like weather before mankind had anemometers, dopplar radar, and satellites. W could see the trees move and feel wind on our faces, tell that it was hot or cold, rainy or sunny, but we could not understand weather as a system. Given that the shadow government deliberately obfuscates itself, coming to a full understand of it is all the more difficult, especially since there are likely multiple cabals of insiders working towards different goals. Somebody, likely on the ideological side of Trump at least, gave all that CIA information to Wikileaks. Even a cursory read through the summary makes it seems silly to think that there is not all sorts of stuff going on we don’t know about. https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/


  2. What if the members of the deep state have no idea that they are members? It’s not a fraternal organization like the Masons. No rings or secret handshakes.

    My current view is that it is overwhelmingly the case that all they have in common is ‘interests’ in a broad sense of the term. And that interest is ‘catastrophic political conflict.’ They are professionally involved in dealing with that risk. Theorizing about it, predicting it, preparing to defend against it, defense in all possible manners, and on and on.

    The only acquaintance that was literally a member — a ‘card carrying member’ — was an rather ordinary looking woman who had a PhD in a rather rare language and a job with a 3 letter agency. It wasn’t rare in my outside the Washington beltway town. She was simply a rather high level civil servant. And I have an idea that she worked in an office environment that was filled with people similar to her.

    At the other end of the spectrum, Leslie Gelb, who let/edited/managed the project. Gelb openly discussed his public support for the Iraq War.
    “My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2009/10/leslie-gelb-admits-he-supported-iraq-war-for-the-sake-of-his-career/#sthash.IXOcAjmb.dpuf

    From the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/11/18/the-next-war-3

    “LESLIE GELB: I think we’re about to cross a Rubicon, and in modern times it’s every bit as fateful as Caesar’s crossing. I believe we should cross it, for all the reasons Jeff has been writing about. This guy really is a serious threat, and a danger. And it’s important for us to go after him, to get rid of him. But I shudder at my beliefs and my conviction that we should do this, because …[lengthy equivacation] …Good things can come of it, and I hope they will, particularly in that region of the world, because Iraq and Iran really have a chance, and deserve a chance for the next stage in their history, for the kind of potentially middle-class societies where you can build more rule of law and have a good preoccupation with economic development. And that could set a good example for the rest of the Arab and Islamic world.

    And on and on. They look in the mirror and see themselves as everything they are but nothing remotely like a part of a deep state. So the idea seems ludicrous.

    I have had numerous discussions about it — and the problem for proponents of the existence of the deep state is they put too fine a point on it. Everything is superficially conventional life. The common element is a career interest in global conflict — but always defined as the negative. Defense, Risk Management, International Relations, &c. They are in favor of our safety, that’s all — they must tell themselves.

    Elites, Military, Defense Industry, Oil, Money. Yes and no. John Stumpf, the former and now disgraced Chairman of Wells Fargo didn’t spend his life dreaming of a global banking cartel. It was cross-selling. He built it up to six products per customer — but ‘eight is great’. Note: A household with a primary checking account has one product. Most have a savings account and a credit card or an overdraft line or an additional checking account. Toss in a HELOC and a mortgage and thats six. But he wasn’t at Davos and likely never bothered reading any publication of the BIS (Bank of International Settlements).

    I think they also tend work in bureaucracies and not through deep personal relationships such as kinship. But the important thing is to look at the undesirable outcome and then back to interests. Career, paycheck, &c. It’s dangerous because it is not remotely secret, it is in plain sight, and the actors are oblivious the presence of the collective power of unorganized but parallel interests.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pardon the lack of editing. Leslie Gelb, who led/edited/managed the Pentagon Papers project. The irony is that if anyone in the world should understand the problem of fighting a war without a clue about its historical context. Vietnam was a colonial war of liberation, involved religious conflict (Catholic, Buddhist, etc), as well as proxies.

      Did anyone even know Iraq included Sunni and Shia and Kurdish divisions?


      1. Scott Ritter, as I recall, brought up Sunni/Shiite/Kurd divisions and the possibility of ethnic cleansing breaking out in his short 2002 book arguing against the Iraq War, but agreed that people who got us into it- including evidently some of the eggheads behind the scenes- were startlingly ignorant of potential scenarios.


  3. But it also includes all the other administrative agencies in DC. There’s no reason why formally democratic societies cannot have a deep state as well. I think it has long been well-documented in Japan for example. So yes, the military-industrial complex is part of the problem, as is the national-security state, but also the administrative state. Deep state seems like the best term for them all.


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