The “deep state.” It is a murky and ominous term often suggesting a conspiracy — usually involving intelligence agencies, the armed forces or even judges — to influence policy and undercut democratically elected administrations.
It has been uttered in recent years to describe the situation in Turkey as well as the internal battles faced by governments in Egypt and Pakistan.
“A lot of times other people have seen this nefarious actor that kind of does what it wants to do and sometimes doesn’t follow the directions of a leadership,” said Robert Tomlinson, an associate professor at the Naval War College.
The deep state is a “classic” conspiracy theory, said Professor Tim Melley of Miami University in Ohio, who has written extensively on the subject. “It’s describing what might be called bureaucracy.”
In decades past, intimations of “deep state” conspiracies in the United States have bubbled to the surface from the depths of the far left and right.
‘Deep state’ conspiracy theories abound
“There’s no way you can disprove it,” said Cornell Clayton, Washington State University’s Distinguished Professor of Government. “That’s part of the problem.”
Most memorably, the term emerged with theories that U.S. intelligence agencies were involved in the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy.
The label was also applied to Pentagon resistance in 1973 to President Richard Nixon’s order to ship U.S. military aid to the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War.
Now it is being used by conservative media and others in America to describe an alleged cabal intent on wrecking the presidency of Donald Trump.
The president himself fueled such talk last week with an incendiary series of tweets accusing his predecessor, Barack Obama, of ordering “my wires tapped in Trump Tower” during the 2016 election campaign.
Trump provided no evidence and the claim has been categorically denied by Obama administration officials and former intelligence agency leaders.
Did Trump’s tweets go too far?
Even members of Trump’s own Republican Party have been reluctant to embrace the wire-tapping charge, although several have suggested that something more subtle is going on.
“I have not seen that evidence” of wiretapping, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, told reporters Tuesday. “I think the bigger question that needs to be answered is whether or not Mr. Trump or any of his associates were in fact targeted by any of the intelligence agencies or law-enforcement authorities.”
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, has also commented on “the emergence of a deep state” led by Obama. “That is something that we should prevent,” he told The New York Times this week.
“I don’t think Republicans should be saying that,” former CIA agent Fred Fleitz told VOA. “I don’t think there is a deep state. But I do think there’s a problem with people in bureaucracy who are working against President Trump.”
Federal bureaucracy is powerful…
While not using the phrase “deep state,” a senior administration official responding to a VOA query said Wednesday, “It is odd that President Obama and the Democrats routinely denounced leaks during the campaign last year when [the leaks] harmed their party’s standard-bearer, but are silent today amid illegal and even more troubling disclosures.”
In the United States, the military is subject to civilian control and federal judges are appointed by presidents. But the sprawling federal bureaucracy, with several dozen layers and more than 2 million civilian workers, can be a tough beast to tame for any administration.
White House officials and others believe this entrenched bureaucracy skews left politically, and therefore has been hostile to the new Republican administration from the outset.
“There are many, many supporters of the previous administration — both career officials as well as political appointees that have been held over temporarily, largely for continuity-of-government purposes — that are widely believed to be, and in some cases known to be, the source of many of these leaks,” the senior administration official told VOA.
…and abhors change
The official said many former political appointees or Democratic staffers from Capitol Hill have “burrowed” into safe career positions in a myriad of agencies, from which they are disseminating inaccurate leaks “to try to embarrass the president.”
The official added that some are committing crimes by leaking classified information that “can undermine our national security and sensitive diplomatic efforts.”
Fleitz, who is now the senior vice president of the Center for Security Policy, said he thinks Trump “can deal with this problem by getting his people into place, staffing these bureaucracies.”
St. Lawrence University associate professor Howard Eissenstat said pushback against Trump by the permanent bureaucracy is understandable, because the new administration intends to “shake up the system, push policies in radical new ways.”
Trump White House officials “make no bones about the idea that they are going to change things more radically than a traditional and political administration might do,” Eissenstat noted.
Analogies found in Ankara
The use of the “deep state” phrase in the United States now “is very useful politically because it suggests something much more conspiratorial, nefarious, dark and scary than the usual sort of bureaucratic resistance that we would see,” added Eissenstat.
And that is a real concern, according to several of the academic experts VOA contacted. As Miami University’s Melley cautions, for those accused of being part of a conspiratorial shadow government, “while it’s not impossible to disprove some conspiracy theories, it’s often annoyingly difficult.”
Some government workers in Turkey discovered that last year, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan retaliated against those whom he held responsible for a failed coup attempt against him, the phrase was used to delegitimize the bureaucracy.
“What it led to was purges of civil servants with a lot of government experience, who were replaced by loyalists,” explained Clayton, who directs Washington State University’s Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service.
For now, the young and inexperienced Trump administration should not be too focused on “deep state”-type conspiracy theories, said Tomlinson, a former U.S. Air Force colonel.
“You need to be aware of how to understand and work with a bureaucracy. This is one of the big things that a president and a new administration have to learn how to deal with,” he told VOA.