During his first few weeks in the White House, President Donald Trump confronted a series of leaks he said came from within U.S. intelligence community.
Many of Trump’s allies argued the disclosures proved the existence of a shadow government of ideologically-hostile bureaucrats scheming to derail his presidency. Other world leaders have made similar assertions, including Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who last summer clamped down on what he charged was a massive coup orchestrated by a “deep state” conspiracy.
Worldview teamed up with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to examine if insider plotting poses real threats to elected governments, or if deep state accusations are just a political ploy.
During a live taping of Worldview at the Chicago Council on June 19th, host Jerome McDonnell spoke with Michael Glennon and Mike Lofgren. Glennon is a professor of international law at Tufts University and former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wrote the book National Security and Double Government. Lofgren worked in Congress for 28 years and wrote the book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of the Shadow Government.
Jerome McDonnell: What is a deep state?
Mike Lofgren: It’s the iron cage of bureaucracy. It’s the evolution, not a conspiracy, of behaviors in bureaucratic structures. The government, like some big corporations, operate on their own compass headings. Just like the biggest corporations behave without reference to the shareholders, the government sometimes doesn’t follow the wishes of the governed.
Michael Glennon: We have drifted into a bifurcated system of government in this country. The national security policy of the United States is defined and managed by a group of several hundred officials who head the intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies. They have largely escaped accountability by the Congress, courts and even the president. The United States has been moving towards autocracy.
McDonnell: What you’re describing in the United States seems a little different than what’s going in Egypt or Pakistan, where the deep state is depicted as a criminal conspiracy guilty of killing people and overthrowing the government.
Lofgren: What we see overseas could be a harbinger of what is to come when accountability is not required. We have cases where American citizens can be essentially executed without judicial proceedings. We now see Trump who is not a captive of the state. Instead, he’s creating his own. He’s voluntarily delegating a whole lot to our military. When a president or Congress abdicates something like force levels in Afghanistan, they’re abdicating a whole lot. Trump is allowing the military to set rules of engagement.
Glennon: It is a function of incentives that are deeply embedded in the American political system. Members of Congress, the judiciary, and even the executive branch don’t want blood on their hands if there is an attack on the United States. Instead, they want to defer to the experts and not be pinpointed as the decision makers. National security experts correctly believe that they have the experience and the expertise to make informed judgments to protect the nation’s security, but the issue is that there has been this massive transfer of power from the elected officials of the United States to the national security bureaucracy over the last seventy years.
McDonnell: What is going on between Trump and the security services?
Glennon: When I heard that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, I was immediately reminded of a conversation that I had 40 years ago with a high ranking Justice Department official. [The] Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time was conducting an investigation of the activities of foreign intelligence agencies in the United States. I met this associate of the attorney general and I said the FBI should be helping the Senate investigation because these foreign agencies are doing some pretty heinous things. The official said that the FBI is like a big dog. Almost all the time, it sleeps and sleeps and sleeps. Every now and then, somebody wakes up the big dog, and it goes after him, and goes after him, and doesn’t stop until it gets its teeth into him. I think Donald Trump woke up the big dog.
Had Trump done it with a little adroitness and finesse, he might have been able to pull it off a strategy of divide and conquer. He could have identified sympathetic and supportive factions within a very fragmented bureaucracy. Unfortunately for Trump, taking a meat axe to the FBI alienated a vast group of potential supporters. I think it’s going to be much much more difficult for Trump to get the national security bureaucracy on his side.
McDonnell: Where is congressional oversight in all of this?
Lofgren: In Congress, the definition of oversight means overlook, and it’s particularly bad for the military. One of the most frustrating things for me, when I worked in Congress, we were hoping for some serious analysis. We never really did get to any substantive questions, though. In public, the congressmen would ask softball questions like: “how many more troops do you need?” Asking a general how many more troops he needs is sort of asking a carpenter how many more nails he needs.
Glennon: Look at the zenith of congressional oversight, the Senate Intelligence Committee and their investigation into torture and look at that. If you read their report closely, it shows that the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t know that black site prisons had been established, they didn’t know that waterboarding was occurring, they didn’t know that the waterboarding was being taped, and they didn’t know that the videotapes were destroyed in violation of the explicit orders of the White House. The report doesn’t identify who was responsible for this program either.
McDonnell: If we can’t count on Congress, can we count on the courts to change this executive bureaucracy then?
Glennon: There’s only a tiny handful of cases in which any plaintiff challenged even the most grievous violations of his or her rights. Almost none of the victims of Bush and Obama counterterrorism policies has had so much as his day in court, yet alone recovered a dime in damages. The courts dismiss these lawsuits before they even get heard on very technical and largely dubious jurisdictional grounds. The classic case is of Khalid El-Masri who was mistakenly kidnapped by American covert ops. When he sued in U.S. district court, he was dismissed on state secret grounds. He then went to the European Court of human rights, and they ruled 15 to one in El-Masri’s favor.
Lofgren: The courts almost always defer to the executive branch because they supposedly know what they’re doing. Besides, the whole State Secrets Privilege is based on a lie. It began in 1953 with a military plane crash. The next of kin wanted to find out what happened, and the Air Force said it was classified. Fifty years later, they find out there was nothing classified about it, and it was all done to protect the aircraft manufacturer from liability.
Audience Question: Can the Deep State be a check to the somewhat authoritarian executive branch we see today?
Glennon: I think that would be a terrible, terrible mistake. I can see the impulse to welcome the bureaucracy to check what some Americans view as malignant policies. But they are perpetrated by someone who was, after all, elected by the people: Donald Trump. The national security bureaucracy is not responsive to the people. It is not accountable. To permit the national security bureaucracy, which is found nowhere in the Constitution, to act as a check on the elected representatives of the people, or the elected leader of this country would be a different form of government. It’s where platonic guardians are legitimated and validated in saving the people from themselves. That is not a democracy.
Audience Question: How do you expect the voters to know what they don’t know, to hold the Congress accountable for what they don’t know?
Glennon: The problem is that the voters’ ignorance is entirely rational. There’s no reason to spend time learning about complex public policy questions if your views don’t matter. It makes perfect sense to remain ignorant. On the other side of the coin, the national security bureaucracy and the elected representatives of the people have less incentive to take into account the views of their voters. This this is the negative feedback loop in which the United States is now locked.
Thanks to Jonathan Macha, Iain Whitaker, Joe Palermo, and everyone at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for setting up a great program. From the WBEZ side, thanks to Joel Myer, Ashley Thorpe and usual crowd at Worldview, Steve Bynum, Julian Hayda, Amber Fisher and Vera Tan.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.