A lawless president confronts an untrustworthy intelligence community
“There is no ‘deep state’—not in the conspiratorial way that Donald Trump uses the term,” writes David Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, in his new book, In Deep: The FBI, the CIA and the Truth about America’s “Deep State.”
“In dozens of interviews, no current or former government officials told me they had seen evidence of a conspiracy by FBI and CIA officials to force an American president from power,” he writes.
Rohde, now an executive editor at newyorker.com, depicts the faction that Trump calls “the deep state” as a cadre of civil servants dedicated to nothing more controversial than expertise and orderly functioning of the federal government. When some 80 former national security officials came together in March to endorse Joe Biden’s presidential bid, they dubbed themselves “the steady state.” Confronted with an erratic, lawless president, these functionaries want to be reassuring, and so does Rohde. Reality, however, is less comforting.
Rohde combines a lucid history of the abuses of America’s secret government agencies with a generous assessment of the congressional oversight process designed to keep the CIA and NSA under control. But Rohde’s account fails to explain why Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric, supposedly disconnected from political reality, succeeded in consolidating his support and winning an acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial.
The notion that America’s formal democratic institutions are but a facade for deeper power arrangements is hardly new. In the 1970s, Professor Peter Dale Scott offered a theory of “deep politics” to explain events ranging from the assassination of JFK to Watergate. In Scott’s view, networks of intelligence officials, organized crime, and arms traffickers shaped American politics at a subterranean level.
Scott’s perspective was an alternative and answer to the happy narrative of post-World War II American politics in which pragmatism was said to have prevailed over ideology. At home, prosperity was seen as broadly based. Abroad, America was an exceptional nation leading the world on a march to freedom, with the good men of the FBI and the CIA standing guard on “national security.”
The upheavals of the 1960s demolished this propagandistic facade of American identity. The civil rights movement, the violent white backlash, the explosion of urban riots, the carnage of Vietnam, the burgeoning antiwar movement, and the scandals known collectively as “Watergate” revealed a different reality.
America was a deeply unequal country whose domestic politics and foreign policy had been covertly influenced, and sometimes controlled, by secret government agencies, which lied, spied, and denied in service of their reactionary agendas. By the time President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, the post-war American narrative was defunct.
Congress stepped in to write a new narrative. As Rohde recounts in a series of deft personality profiles, a bipartisan Senate committee, led by Senator Frank Church, launched the first serious investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Over the bitter objections of senior CIA and FBI officials, the Church Committee and Edward Levi, a Republican-appointed attorney general, held the agency accountable for 25 years of abuses of power.
At the same time, Congress created a new regime for controlling the secret agencies. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were supposed to be notified of all classified operations. In 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established a secret court to review government applications to eavesdrop on Americans. And most federal agencies created inspector generals to audit operations and finances while protecting whistleblowers. The new narrative posited that the U.S. government had established democratic control over its secret intelligence agencies.
Rohde argues that “the Church Committee system” worked, albeit with diminishing effectiveness, from the 1970s until Obama’s second term when intelligence became “politicized.” Then Trump “blew up” this system. By replacing top intelligence officials with political loyalists, Rohde suggests, Trump is establishing his own “deep state” network in Washington to wield power in his second term.
Rohde’s history tends to undermine his argument that the intelligence community is led by civil servants defending democracy. He shows how the Reagan administration set out to flout the post-Watergate oversight process. When the House Intelligence Committee and the majority of Congress voted to forbid the CIA from supporting counterrevolutionary forces in Nicaragua, CIA director William Casey and Vice President George Bush simply bypassed the elected government. They covertly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contra forces.
Far more than Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy, Iran-contra was a “shadow foreign policy” conducted beyond democratic institutions and the Constitution. The Iran-contra conspiracy was exposed in November 1986, not by civil servants or Congress, but by news reporters in Beirut and Washington.
Nonetheless, the system worked, Rohde argues, because of the post-Watergate consensus about the need for accountability. President Reagan was forced to apologize. A bipartisan congressional investigation found fault with the CIA and the White House. William Webster, a judge, was brought in to keep the CIA in line.
All of which is true, but… As Rohde notes, Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush and his attorney general, William Barr, dealt a “crippling” blow to the Congress’ ability to check the presidency. Barr persuaded Bush to pardon all the Iran-contra figures, including the three top CIA officials who had been indicted for perjury and obstruction. No one in Langley complained. Back then, the CIA thought Bill Barr was on the side of the national security angels. Only when he defended a president with a different agenda would Langley sour on him.
A decade later, the 9/11 attacks swept away most concerns about potential CIA and FBI abuses of power. In a wartime atmosphere, the CIA established a torture regime, blessed by top-secret Justice Department memoranda. The White House implemented a wireless wiretapping program so extreme that some insiders, including FBI director Robert Mueller, objected. And the CIA found that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, providing intelligence community rationalization for an illegal and ill-conceived invasion that ended in disaster.
Rohde spells out this history but ultimately gives the intelligence community a pass.
Former NSA director James Clapper told Rohde that when the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney White House pushed its bogus narrative about Iraq’s alleged rogue weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, “intelligence officers including me… were so eager to help that we found what wasn’t really there.” It was an honest mistake, said Joan Dempsey, a former senior CIA executive. “We were leaning far forward and we fell.” The candor is welcome, but it’s no substitute for accountability. On a momentous issue, the CIA chose not to speak truth to power, and was never compelled to explain to the American people how and why they made such a costly mistake.
Under Obama, the post-Watergate oversight system was further degraded. When the Senate intelligence committee investigated the torture program in 2014, CIA director John Brennan authorized a break-in at the committee’s Capitol Hill offices in search of an internal agency document. Brennan, abuser of the post-Watergate oversight system, would go on to criticize Trump for abusing democratic norms.
Rohde goes so far as to say the oversight system worked in the case of Trump’s attempt to extort a political favor from the Ukraine government. It is true that the complaint from a whistleblower was properly handled by the inspector general of the Office of National Intelligence. And the results were significant: congressional hearings, an investigation and two articles of impeachment.
“Despite Trump’s pressure… the system created in the 1970s to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse by presidents, intelligence agencies, and individual federal workers alike still functioned,” Rohde writes. “The Church reforms remained intact.”
This seems charitable in light of Trump’s acquittal. Yes, the oversight system functioned in a formal sense. Trump was impeached but acquitted, and only one Republican senator was persuaded that Trump’s Ukraine scheme was a high crime or misdemeanor.
It would be more realistic to say Trump is trying to finish what Reagan, Bush, Barr, Cheney, and Brennan started: the neutering of the post-Watergate intelligence oversight system. From 1947 to 2017, the intelligence community consistently elevated the demands of presidential power over the claims of democratic norms, international law, and Congressional oversight. Now the intelligence community is paying a heavy price in the form of a hostile president.
Only when Trump started asserting presidential powers for his own often-corrupt purposes—as opposed to national security doctrine—did the leaders of the intelligence community boast of “defending democracy” and “speaking truth to power.”
Rohde takes these claims at face value. He wants to believe the system is working. But a lot of evidence says otherwise. After Iran-contra, 9/11, two endless wars, and the lies about Iraq’s WMD, torture, and mass surveillance, and the unprecedented intervention of former spy chiefs in domestic politics, a lot of Americans—and not just Trump supporters—no longer trust the mandarins of national security, even if they are appropriately appalled by the president.
The intelligence community has a profound credibility problem, of which Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric is a symptom, not the cause. The cause is the intelligence community’s poor performance and lack of accountability since 9/11. The solution is not just a stronger oversight system but a fundamental rethinking of what we mean by “national security.”
The pandemic may force new paradigms, but Joe Biden probably will not. The often decent civil servants in the CIA and FBI who give voice to Rohde’s narrative are representative of Biden’s “steady state” supporters. They are justified in saying Donald Trump is a dangerous fool and must be removed from power by legal means. They are not anti-democratic plotters, but it is credulous to think of them as disinterested civil servants.
Call it what you will, the intelligence community/“deep state” is a power faction that seeks to regain what they lost in 2016: functional control of the U.S. presidency. The leaders of this faction now pledge allegiance to accountability and democratic norms in order to hasten Trump’s departure, but there is little sign they are serious about reforming the dysfunctional national security system that enabled his election.
Jefferson Morley is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. He is the editor and co-founder of JFK Facts, a blog about the assassination of JFK. His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton.
This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute.