On September 9th the Washington Post featured a front page article describing how the Defense Department had used warplanes to attack targets and kill suspected militants in six countries over the Labor Day weekend. The article was celebratory, citing Pentagon officials who boasted of the ability to engage “multiple targets” anywhere in the world in what has become a “permanent war.” The article did not mention that the United States is not currently at war with any of the six target countries and made no attempt to make a case that the men and women who were killed actually threatened the U.S. or American citizens.
Actual American interests in fighting a war without limits and without an end were not described. They never are. Indeed, in the U.S. and elsewhere many citizens often wonder how certain government policies like the Washington’s war on terror can persist in spite of widespread popular opposition or clear perceptions that they are either ineffective or even harmful. This persistence of policies regarding which there is no debate is sometimes attributed to a “deep state.”
The phrase “deep state” originated in and was often applied to Turkey, in Turkish “Derin Devlet,” where the nation’s security services and governing elite traditionally pursued the same chauvinistic and inward-looking agenda both domestically and in foreign affairs no matter who was prime minister.
In countries where a deep state dominates, real democracy and rule of law are inevitably the first victims. A deep state like Turkey’s is traditionally organized around a center of official and publicly accepted power, which means it often includes senior government officials, the police and intelligence services as well as the military. For the police and intelligence agencies the propensity to operate in secret is a sine qua non for the deep state as it provides cover for the maintenance of relationships that under other circumstances would be considered suspect or even illegal.
It has been claimed that deep state activities in Turkey are frequently conducted through connivance with politicians who are able to provide cover for the activity, with corporate interests and sometimes even with criminal groups, which can operate across borders and help in the mundane tasks of political corruption to include money laundering. This connection of political power with the ability to operate under the radar and generate considerable cash flows are characteristic of deep state.
As all governments for sometimes good reasons engage in concealment of their more questionable activities or even resort to out and out deception, one must ask how the deep state differs. While an elected government might sometimes engage in activity that is legally or morally questionable there are normally some checks and balances in place to limit resort to such activity as well as periodic elections to repudiate what is done. For players in the deep state, there are no accountability and no legal limits and everything is based on self-interest justified through assertion of patriotism and the national interest if they are ever challenged.
Every country has a deep state of some kind even if it goes by another name. “The Establishment” or “old boys’ network” was widely recognized in twentieth century Britain. “Establishment” has often also been used in the United States, describing a community of shared values and interests that has evolved post-Second World War from the Washington-New York axis of senior government officials and financial services executives. They together constitute a group that claims to know what is “best” for the country and act accordingly, no matter who sits in the White House. They generally operate in the shadows but occasionally surface and become public, as when 50 foreign so-called policy experts or former senior officials write letters staking out political positions, as has been occurring recently. The “experts” are currently weighing in to both support and fund the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who, they believe, shares their views and priorities.
The deep state principle should sound familiar to Americans who have been following political developments over the past twenty years. For the deep state to be effective it must be intimately associated with the development or pre-existence of a national security state. There must also be a perception that the nation is in peril, justifying extraordinary measures undertaken by self-described patriots to preserve life and property of the citizenry. Those measures are generically conservative in nature, intended to protect the status quo with the implication that change is dangerous.
Those requirements certainly prevail in post 9/11 America and also feed the other essential component of the deep state, that the control should work secretly or at least under the radar. Consider for a moment how Washington operates. There is gridlock in Congress and the legislature opposes nearly everything that the White House supports. Nevertheless, certain things happen seemingly without any discussion, including the bipartisan, unconstitutional and extremely dangerous assumption of increased executive authority by the White House.
As the Post article demonstrates, there is also widespread acceptance by our country’s elites of the fiction that America is threatened and that Washington has a right to intervene preemptively anywhere in the world at any time. Unpopular and unconstitutional wars continue in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq while the American president routinely claims the meaningless title “leader of the free world” even as he threatens countries that do not adhere to norms dictated by Washington. In the case of Russia, some American leaders actually believe a potentially nuclear war can be won and should be considered while at least one general has taken steps to bring about such a conflict.
Meanwhile both targeted citizens and often innocent foreigners who fit profiles are assassinated by drones without any legal process or framework. Lying to start a war as well as the war crimes committed by U.S. troops and contractors on far flung battlefields including torture and rendition are rarely investigated and punishment of any kind is so rare as to be remarkable when it does occur.
Here at home banks are bailed out and corporate interests are protected by law. Huge multi-year defense contracts are approved for ships and planes that are both vulnerable and money pits. The public is routinely surveilled, citizens are imprisoned without being charged or are tried by military tribunals, the government increasingly cites state secrets privilege to conceal its actions and whistleblowers are punished with prison. America the warlike predatory capitalist operating with little interference or input from the citizenry might be considered a virtual definition of deep state.
Some observers believe that the deep state is driven by the “Washington Consensus,” a subset of the “American exceptionalism” meme. It is plausible to consider it a 1950s creation, the end product of the “military industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower warned about, but some believe its infrastructure was actually put in place through the passage of the Federal Reserve Act prior to the First World War. Several years after signing the bill, Woodrow Wilson reportedly lamented “We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”
As I have noted, America’s deep state is something of a hybrid creature that operates along a New York to Washington axis. Where the Turks sometimes engage in unambiguous criminal activity like drug trafficking to fund themselves the Washington elite instead turns to the banksters, lobbyists and defense contractors, operating much more in the open and, ostensibly, legally. U.S. style deep state includes all the obvious parties, both public and private, who benefit from the status quo to include key players in the police and intelligence agencies, the military, the treasury and justice departments and in the judiciary. It is structured to materially reward those who play along with the charade and the glue to accomplish that comes ultimately from Wall Street. “Financial services” might well be considered the epicenter of the entire process. Even though government is needed to implement desired policies, the banksters comprise the truly essential element, capable of providing genuine rewards for compliance. As corporate interests increasingly own the media, little dissent comes from the Fourth Estate as the process plays out while many of the proliferating Washington think tanks that provide deep state “intellectual” credibility are similarly funded by defense contractors.
The cross fertilization that is essential to make the system work takes place through the famous revolving door whereby senior government officials enter the private sector at a high level. In some cases the door revolves a number of times, with officials leaving government before returning in an even more elevated position. This has been characteristic of the rise of the so-called neoconservatives. Along the way, those select individuals are protected, promoted and groomed for bigger things. The senior government officials, ex-generals, and high level intelligence operatives who participate find themselves with multi-million dollar homes for their retirement years, cushioned by a tidy pile of investments.
The deep state in American is completely corrupt because it exists to sell out the public interest and it includes both major political parties as well as government officials. Politicians like the Clintons who leave the White House “broke” and accumulate more than $100 million in a few years exemplify how it rewards its friends while a bloated Pentagon churns out hundreds of unneeded flag officers who receive munificent pensions and benefits for the rest of their lives. And no one is punished, ever. Disgraced former general and CIA Director David Petraeus is now a partner at the KKR private equity firm even though he knows nothing about financial services. More recently, former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who supports Hillary and is publicly advocating assassinating Russians and Iranians, has become a Senior Counselor at Clinton-linked Beacon Global Strategies. Both Petraeus and Morell are being rewarded for their loyalty to the system.
What makes the deep state so successful? It wins no matter who is in power by creating bipartisan supported money pits within the system. Unending wars and simmering though hard to define threats together invite more spending on national security and make for good business. Monetizing the completely unnecessary and hideously expensive global war on terror benefits the senior government officials, beltway industries and financial services that feed off it. Because it is essential to keep the money flowing, the deep state persists in promoting policies that otherwise make no sense, to include the unwinnable wars currently enjoying marquee status in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan. The deep state knows that a fearmongered public will buy its product and does not even have to make much of an effort to sell it.
The United States of America is not exactly deep state Turkey but to be sure any democracy can be subverted by particular interests hiding behind the mask of patriotism buttressed by phony international threats. Ordinary Americans frequently ask why politicians and government officials appear to be so obtuse, rarely recognizing what is actually occurring in the country. That is partly due to the fact that the political class lives in a bubble of its own creation but it might also be because many of America’s leaders actually accept and benefit from the fact that there is an unelected, un-appointed and unaccountable presence within the system that actually manages what is taking place from behind the scenes. That would be the American deep state.
[This article is a lightly edited version of a paper presented at the Ron Paul Institute’s conference on peace and prosperity held on September 10, 2016 in Dulles, Virginia]