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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Deep State?

How do we reconcile inflammatory right-wing rhetoric with the legitimate structural issues embedded in our intrusive institutions?

Words: Caleb Brennan
Pictures: Sean Robertson
Date:

This past February saw the creation of a brand-new theater in the never-ending culture war that is contemporary American politics. The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government was created by House GOP members in January 2023 and chaired by Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH). The committee is tasked with once and for all uncovering the dark web of subterfuge that purportedly haunts the federal bureaucracy.

In their new rendition of the “paranoid style,” GOP operatives are seeking to paint a fantastical tale of vindictive intelligence spooks out for the Make America Great Again (MAGA)-red blood of committed patriots.

With its inception, Jordan and his comrades in the Freedom Caucus, a collection of the Republican Party’s most ardent nationalists, are hoping to demonstrate that some of the most powerful institutions in Washington — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice, and the broader intelligence community — are engaged in an active war on conservatives and the reactionary politics that define the current GOP.

While very little evidence has so far been provided, the subcommittee is nevertheless dedicated to finally unraveling the threads that will verify the martyr complex at the heart of the Trumpian ideology. Although the committee is meant to probe the FBI and Department of Justice for supposedly discriminating against conservative viewpoints, Jordan and his cohort of neo-Bircherites are mostly here to turn the gears of the perpetual grievance machine.

Democrats are, nonetheless, up in arms over the very existence of a space that indulges in the kind of persecution-peddling the Republican Party has become synonymous with.

“I’m deeply concerned about the use of this select subcommittee as a place to settle scores, showcase conspiracy theories, and advance an extreme agenda that risks undermining Americans’ faith in our democracy,” said Representative Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), the panel’s highest-ranking Democrat, of a recent hearing.

“Some of today’s witnesses would have us believe that the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are part of a deep state cabal.”

“DEEP STATE”

That word “deep state,” like so many other terms in the Trump era, has become a dubious and frustrating phrase that has propagated in our culture without any precise meaning. It’s a floating signifier that seems to escape any clear conditions or history.

Unfortunately, its ubiquity in our lexicon has sapped all meaning and conception from an otherwise very real reality. This reality is about the so-called “Intelligence Community” — and its military and policing counterparts — that manages US interests both domestically and internationally and how it is inherently undemocratic and corrosive to civil liberties and political agency outside the auspices of approved American ideologies.

The goal of the deep state narrative amongst the revanchist Right is to weaponize the very real powerlessness most Americans feel and transfer that energy into transforming consortiums of violence like the FBI or the NSA into paramilitary and paralegal forces that fulfill their darkest political desires.

Though its antecedents in our culture are imprecise, in the modern moment the term “deep state” has long been a bugbear of the hysterical, post-Waco conservative fringe. Anti-government identitarians, Turner Diary acolytes, and cash-for-gold cranks have invoked it as a catch-all euphemism to describe the puppet master elite. It was President Donald Trump’s Svengali, Steve Bannon, who is probably the most prominent figure to deploy the term, and he has employed it quite liberally. Since their mutual rise, the phrase “deep state” has trickled down from the recesses of the misanthropic Right.

Polling now suggests that when given a general definition of the phrase “deep state,” close to three out of every four Americans believed with at least some certainty that there is “a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy.”

Such sentiments cannot be solely placed on Bannon’s shoulders, but the fact remains the concept has now been utterly appropriated by both the politicos and pundits that influence the Right’s social ecosystem. As such, they have been allowed to repaint the popular portrait surrounding the conduct of the federal government and what former advisor to President Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes, dubbed the “foreign policy blob.”

In their telling of events, these institutions have been captured by effete liberals hellbent on destroying traditional American values, subverting government departments to explicitly attack Trump, and brandishing civil bureaucracy to fulfill their hypothetical “globalist” agendas both at home and abroad. Ceding this turf to the whims of the Bannons and Jordans of the world allows them to control how the public conceives of some of the most impactful and foundational organizations in the US government’s managerial arsenal.

Enabling feverish ultra-nationalists to co-opt critiques of mass surveillance, US interventionism, and the timeless art of manufacturing consent is a dangerous gambit for anyone who claims to be devoted to human and legal rights, liberty, and peace. Furthermore, it dilutes the actual toll of empowering the intelligence community and the Department of Defense to conduct themselves consistently in an unaccountable fashion.

A LEGACY OF ASH 

The stark truth is that the function of US domestic and international security agencies is both deeply tedious and actually much more intrusive than right-wing swindlers and politicos have attempted to demonstrate.

The more mainstream narrative follows that once upon a time, the “Alphabet Mafia” — in particular the FBI, National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Henry Kissinger-led National Security Council — became drunk with power during the first phases of the Cold War. Their misdeeds, to put it lightly, resulted in the wiretapping and surveillance of Americans, the arming of hyper-violent anti-communist war criminals, deceptive propaganda, racist fearmongering, drug trafficking, political assassinations, illegal bombings, and Mengele-esque “mind control” experiments.

And, most frustratingly, suppressing democracies across the globe.

However, after Watergate, there was the convening of the Church Committee, named after the chair of the panel, Senator Frank Church (D-ID), which in 1975 revealed these transgressions and established a permanent legislative administration that would reputedly reel in the excesses of the intelligence community. From this point up until the new millennium, balance was apparently restored to the now-deradicalized intelligence state. The goal of the CIA allegedly became reoriented around ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the post-J. Edgar Hoover FBI reworked to manage more pressing, less “political” tasks like the War on Drugs.

But the War on Terror would inaugurate a new PR nadir for the deep state: the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the NSA spying scandal, the Afghanistan Papers, and many other destructive policies that tarnished the reputations of US international and federal policing efforts.

The damage done was a direct consequence of executive governance that shattered constitutional standards and demanded to operate in the shadows. Yet, for both liberal and conservative commentators, these were either completely rationalized or seen as simply “mistakes” — not indictments on the inherent function or form of the intelligence bureaus. Indeed, the invasion of the term “deep state” into the zeitgeist has even created open, ostensibly liberal defenders of a security apparatus that still runs roughshod over both supranational and constitutional entitlements and congressional oversight — and consistently evades any kind of legal consequences.

From former Kissinger Associates director David Rothkopf to senior Brookings Institute fellow Shadi Hamid, centrist liberals have now shifted from arguing that the deep state is a conspiracy to maintaining that a certain level of bureaucratic fiat is necessary for democracy. In a sense, this is true. A country as large as ours cannot have every decision deliberated via plebiscite. None of these technocrats or pundits seem to acknowledge the fact that part of this functionality, in the context of the United States, has included intelligence operatives and institutions that, by their very nature, resist regulation and transparency.

THE ACTUALLY EXISTING DEEP STATE

Despite the traditional understanding of America’s intelligence apparatus, the actually existing deep state is still just as omnipotent as ever. The CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon in particular continue to implement strategies that erode both domestic dissent internally and state sovereignty abroad.

On the local front, recent FBI conduct is startling. In the name of the War on Terror, the bureau invested substantial resources and manpower into manufacturing terrorist plots. According to the journalist Trevor Aaronson, the FBI used informants and sting operations involving individuals that “didn’t have the capacity to commit an act of terrorism were it not for the FBI providing everything, including fake bombs, transportation, even money for the targets of the investigations.”

Officials would then hold these cases out to justify their invasive and extralegal conduct.

This even involved vulnerable “suspects” that had considerable cognitive disabilities or had their immigration status weaponized against them. Leaked documents provided by former FBI agent Terry Albury demonstrate a unique penchant for violating civil rights laws to spy on racial and religious minorities with no ties to any terrorist organizations. Additionally, the bureau has engaged in warrantless surveillance of American journalists — including reporters that were highly critical of US foreign policy.

More recently, during both the 2020 George Floyd protests and the ongoing Cop City occupation in Atlanta, federal agents have tracked activists organizing against police brutality — the latter including labeling a Chicago-based bookstore as a hub for “violent extremists.” The former entailed the use of undercover informants and agents who infiltrated peaceful, anti-police brutality groups in places like Denver and Colorado Springs. In the Denver case, this meant commissioning a violent felon who unsuccessfully tried to convince a left-wing activist to assassinate assistant Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

While the CIA and the Pentagon have also participated in illegal domestic surveillance — most notably by hacking into congressional computers and spying on a Senate panel that was investigating the agency’s detention and interrogation program — their recent indiscretions operate on a global scale. For example, a 2022 report by the Brennan Center found that the CIA and the Department of Defense are taking advantage of the discrepancies laid out in security provisions and federal codes to engage in military operations without meaningful government supervision. Such operations are tasked with waging covert military campaigns, arming proxy forces, and conducting counterterrorism exercises, all without input from elected officials. “The public and even most of Congress is unaware of the nature and scope of these programs,” wrote Katherine Yon Ebright, a legal expert with  Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, who authored the report.

Ebright’s research focused on 10 US Code § 333, which was used to justify the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars to train and equip surrogate forces in 52 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe; 127e programs, which were honed by the CIA in the 2001 invasion Afghanistan and involves ingraining US military personnel with foreign fighters to combat terrorist organizations; and the intentionally obfuscated 1202 authority, which grants the Defense Department to “provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals” that are skirmishing with US adversaries like Russia, Iran, and China. Additionally, statutes like USC §3093 allow CIA paramilitary agents to engage in similar behavior, a practice that they perfected during the Cold War. These procedures are designed to be deniable and forgo traditional processes of democratic approval.

Such policies claim that the US military and intelligence personnel are only functioning in advisory roles, but plenty of combat situations can and do arise from such operations. In essence, the the Pentagon is putting US troops in potential combat situations — including places like Ukraine, where a firefight between US and Russian forces could ignite a terrifying conflict — without any democratic authorization.

“Simply put, the lack of transparency on security cooperation is undemocratic and dangerous. Congressional oversight is sorely needed, particularly as the Department of Defense pivots to great power competition and conducting irregular warfare against nuclear states,” concludes Ebright.

A MURKIER VIOLENCE 

The real rationale behind the deep state boogeyman in spaces like QAnon and the MAGA movement is, of course, not about holding institutions to account or challenging the methodology of our national security state. Instead, it’s about casting a concrete, exhilarating villain — much like recent attacks on LGBTQ communities or newly ignited fears of “radical Marxists” in public education — to wage war against. In a confounding, multipolar world such as ours, the lines of who is “good” and “bad” are not and cannot be demarcated. A fun story of shadowy ghouls and relentless freedom fighters is much more appealing (and less offensive) than reckoning with the often monotonous materiality of US statecraft.

The truth is that much of the harm that our intelligence apparatus causes simply doesn’t align with the Right’s search for a compelling story arc. The realities of the “deep state” are actually as old as politics itself: A mad, imprecise orgy for power that never follows a clear, digestible path. There is no cloak-and-dagger approach to this form of top-down rule. The people at the highest levels of government do not need to create the illusion of consent.

As the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in his seminal study, “The Power Elite,” on the convergence of the economic, political, and military aristocrats in post-war America: “It is just that the people are of necessity confused and must, like trusting children, place all the new world of foreign policy and strategy and executive action in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how.”

Even still, the threat that such novel fabrications create are useful. The goal of the deep state narrative amongst the revanchist Right is to weaponize the very real powerlessness most Americans feel and transfer that energy into transforming consortiums of violence like the FBI or the NSA into paramilitary and paralegal forces that fulfill their darkest political desires. This is why it is so crucial to honestly assess the consistent, tangible damage of our most repressive sites of governance, and most urgently end their totalizing influence. Otherwise, such myth-making will become as earnest as the history of our democracy’s most undemocratic tendencies.

Caleb Brennan

Caleb Brennan is an inequality journalist and political writer based out of Minneapolis.

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