The Deep State Is a Distraction

    John Deutch

    Politics, North America

    Secret Service agents protect U.S. President Barack Obama as he speaks about his vision to reduce carbon pollution while preparing the country for the impacts of climate change while at Georgetown University in Washington

    When you hear the term “dark government,” change the channel or turn off the radio; if you see an article, turn the page.

    Note: this article is part of a symposium included in the March/April 2018 issue of the National Interest.

    THERE ARE many historical examples of groups operating within, beside or in opposition to legitimate or illegitimate sitting governments. Perhaps the most notorious instance of an effective “deep state” is the covert “Black Hand” organization. Headed by the Serbian intelligence chief, Colonel “Apis,” it engineered the assassination of Austria’s Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, setting off the First World War.

    Today, in the United States and elsewhere, there are undoubtedly groups, motivated by principle, amusement, or profit, that seek to influence government actions covertly. Such groups employ conventional tools such as lobbying and campaign contributions, and are increasing delivering their message through both conventional and social media.

    Noisy exchanges on TV programs, tweets from the White House and magazine commentaries are extremely weak reeds on which to build a theory of the existence of a nefarious “deep state.” The more paranoid supporters of President Trump say that the new deep state constitutes organized resistance by federal government employees who are determined to subvert his presidency. It should come as no surprise that federal employees, mostly in civilian agencies, dislike President Trump’s politics and policies, especially those that call for budget cuts and reductions in force. But to call this resistance organized is a stretch. Indeed, it is laughable to claim that an escalation in leaks from disgruntled government employees intending to influence policy serves as prima facie evidence of a deep state. Quite the contrary. Such leaks, which are abhorrent to me, many others view as a strength, not a weakness, of U.S. democracy.

    There is little analysis or evidence to bear on the question of the existence of a deep state. Perhaps a simpler question is whether there has been a shift over recent years to more behavior that is characterized as coming from a deep state, and whether such behavior risks national security. I doubt both propositions. The significant national-security threats that face the nation today—Iran, North Korea, terrorism, competition with China and Russia—are not central in the deep-state narrative.

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