President Donald Trump first referred to the “deep state” in June 2017, and he has grown increasingly fond of the phrase. The president and his supporters repeatedly utilize it to signify a cabal of unelected government officials bent on undermining Trump’s presidency.
The term “deep state” is as vague as the shadowy conspiracies it is meant to evoke. Into these murky waters wades The New Yorker’s David Rohde, whose compelling and timely new book, “In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America’s ‘Deep State,’” aims to determine whether in fact a deep state exists. The author’s short answer is that no, the United States’ intelligence and military apparatus is not plotting a coup against a duly elected president.
The longer answer, however, is more complicated, as unelected officials have throughout history run secret and illegal operations, but most often with the knowledge of the president. Rohde, who was awarded one of his two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting on the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica for The Christian Science Monitor, begins in the mid-1970s, when journalists revealed allegations of illegal spying by American intelligence agencies. Post-Watergate, trust in government was already at rock bottom. The resulting Senate investigation uncovered decades of astonishing abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, from political assassinations abroad to, at home, reading Americans’ mail, infiltrating student activist groups, and tapping the phones of political organizations. The Senate’s Church Committee made a raft of recommendations to reform the intelligence community.
The remainder of the book’s first half is a brisk run-through of presidential administrations from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, assessing the efficacy of the Church reforms, the clashes over executive and congressional power, and the mixed records related to oversight of intelligence agencies. While any one of these short chapters could be the subject of a shelf of books, together they sketch the broad outlines of the power struggles within recent administrations.
While Jimmy Carter welcomed oversight, the belief in a strong executive gained renewed currency under Ronald Reagan. (One young Reagan staffer, future Trump attorney general William Barr, argued forcefully for a reassertion of presidential power.) The Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration saw government officials secretly selling arms to Iran to fund a rebel group in Nicaragua. At the end of his administration, George H.W. Bush pardoned several Reagan officials involved in the scheme who’d been convicted of lying to Congress. With those pardons, Rohde writes, “the core goal of the Church reforms – public oversight of secretive intelligence agencies by elected representatives – had been thwarted.”
The Clinton years showed the risks of investigative overkill in undermining public trust in Congress. Independent counsel Ken Starr’s wide-ranging investigation, which led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, did little to dislodge public support for the president: Clinton’s job-approval rating actually climbed during the impeachment hearings, although they dropped afterward. Rohde sees the 9/11 attacks as further strengthening the presidency, with the broad support of Americans who were fearful of future attacks. The George W. Bush administration, Rohde notes, “granted vast authority and resources to the CIA, FBI, and NSA, broadened the use of secrecy, and flouted congressional oversight.” Overseas, CIA agents abducted and tortured terrorism suspects, while at home, the NSA engaged in secret, illegal wiretapping. Most damaging, the U.S. invaded Iraq based on faulty intelligence. Joan Dempsey, a former CIA and Pentagon official who is one of Rohde’s sources in the book, says the botched intelligence resulted from analysts’ sincere desire to prevent another attack: “It wasn’t a conspiracy to doctor intelligence. We were leaning far forward and we fell.”
While Obama claimed to welcome transparency and oversight, his administration increased CIA drone strikes and expanded NSA surveillance, again in the name of keeping Americans safe. Many on the left criticized him, but the right in particular painted him in dark, authoritarian tones. In the second half of the book, devoted to the Trump administration, we see how that vision of Obama evolved into the broader vision of the “deep state.” Shortly after the 2016 election, Breitbart News, then edited by Trump strategist Steve Bannon, published a lengthy polemic by an author using a pseudonym that claimed the existence of an entrenched, bureaucratic deep state at war with Trump.
The notion resonated with President Trump. From Benghazi to the Mueller investigation to the impeachment hearings, Trump has publicly attacked the work of career government officials in the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, and the State Department. Trump has assailed former FBI director James Comey and other members of the intelligence community; when they’ve taken the bait and responded in kind, Rohde notes, they give ammunition to those who see their organizations as biased.
Rohde, in his epilogue, flatly declares that “there is no ‘deep state.’” While acknowledging that the FBI and CIA have been guilty of grave abuses, he concludes, “President Trump, as he often does, is exaggerating.” It is perhaps unknowable the extent to which Trump believes in the deep state or simply understands the term’s political usefulness. Whichever the case, the issues raised by “In Deep” are particularly urgent.