The "Deep State" in America

As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America
New York Times The Interpreter, 2017-02-16


Though leaks can be a normal and healthy check on a president’s power,
what’s happening now [in the first month of the Trump administration] extends much further.
The United States, those experts warn, risks developing
an entrenched culture of conflict
between the president and his own bureaucracy.


What Makes a Deep State?

Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy,
it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict
between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing,
leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts
against one another,
corrupting those institutions in the process.


Mr. Trump, apparently seeking to cut the intelligence community, State Department, and other agencies out of the policy-making process almost entirely, may have triggered a conflict whose escalation we are seeing in the rising number of leaks.

Culture of Conflict

Officials, deprived of the usual levers for shaping policies that are supposed to be their purview, are left with little other than leaking. And the frenetic pace of Mr. Trump’s executive orders, which the agencies would normally review internally over weeks or months, has them pulling that lever repeatedly.

They have leaked draft executive orders, inciting backlashes that led the orders to be shelved. And they have revealed administration efforts to circumvent usual policymaking channels, undermining Mr. Trump’s ability to enact his agenda.

Mr. Trump’s moves to consolidate power away from those agencies under his own authority also has them struggling to keep what they see as their crucial role in governance.


That has forced officials in agencies to ask how far they will go themselves.
As each side begins to perceive itself as under attack and the other as making dangerous power-grabs,
it will justify more and more extreme behavior.


Tit for Tat

Mr. Trump’s tendency to treat each leak as an attack rather than an attempt to influence policy has created an atmosphere in Washington of open institutional conflict.

Some leaks appear motivated by more than mere policy disagreements, such as the revelations concerning conversations between Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, which led on Monday to Mr. Flynn’s resignation.

This came after months of worsening relations between Mr. Trump and the intelligence agencies, which he frequently criticized during his campaign.

Mr. Trump, in rejecting intelligence assessments that Russia intervened in the election to help him win, has risked implying that he will only accept intelligence bent to his political interests.

Mr. Trump has said he might appoint Stephen A. Feinberg, a finance executive who was an early supporter of his campaign, to review the intelligence agencies.

“It looks, sounds and feels like a political witch hunt,” said Ms. Zegart. “It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire.”

“What’s happening here is that the president doesn’t even want to hear intelligence that he doesn’t agree with, and jumps to the conclusion that it must be politicized, and must be the result of people conspiring against him,” Ms. Zegart said.

By creating the perception of conflict, Mr. Trump may have made it more likely.

Crossing the Line

Mr. Flynn, in his short tenure, exemplified the breakdown between the president’s inner circle and career civil servants. He kept the National Security Council largely shut out of policy-making and sought sweeping changes in foreign policy.

For concerned government officials, leaks may have become one of the few remaining means by which to influence not just Mr. Flynn’s policy initiatives but the threat he seemed to pose to their place in democracy. That has fueled speculation that details of Mr. Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador could have been leaked as much to undermine Mr. Flynn as out of concern for impropriety.

Even if that was not the case, such practices are a hazard of officials’ growing reliance on leaks and other tools of bureaucratic resistance. This risks entrenching a culture of bureaucratic warfare that is adversarial and dysfunctional by default — not quite a Turkish-style deep state, but not a healthy democracy either.


Bad for Everyone

As that gulf widens, it becomes more likely that mutual mistrust will lead the president and government bureaucracy to actively undermine one another.

A lesson of deep states: Even minor decisions become the subject of political infighting, making basic governance difficult. “We saw in Egypt in 2013 that the result is complete decision-making paralysis,” Mr. El Amrani said.

That is one of the milder outcomes. But when institutions with vast power to eavesdrop, fine, harass and detain see themselves as locked in a zero-sum struggle for survival, it is often basic civil liberties and democratic rights that end up in the crossfire.

Mr. El Amrani does not believe those worst-case scenarios are likely to come to pass in the United States. But there is still a risk that bureaucratic resistance against the president could become an enduring feature of American politics. Once trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild.

Ms. Zegart agreed. “There are no good long-term consequences here,” she said. “This war between the intelligence community and the White House is bad for the intelligence community, bad for the White House, and bad for the nation’s security.”