In January of this year, Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald published a disturbing headline: “The Deep State Goes to War With President-Elect Trump, Using Unverified Claims as Democrats Cheer.” Greenwald laid out a narrative that has since become popular on the right and in some corners of the left as well: The FBI, the CIA, and rogue intelligence agents are, the story goes, conspiring to undermine democracy and bring down Trump the better to launch a war with Russia. Sean Hannity at Fox News echoed Greenwald’s worries last week, insisting that “Deep-state Obama holdovers embedded like barnacles in the federal bureaucracy are hell-bent on destroying President Trump. It’s time for the Trump administration to purge these saboteurs.”
This all may sound preposterous. And it is preposterous. But it’s also dangerous—and not just because the idea of a Deep State conspiracy offers Trump rhetorical cover and makes it easier for him to play the victim.
American intelligence services have historically done great harm both at home and abroad, whether undermining democratic governments in Chile or targeting civil rights activists at home. Greenwald isn’t wrong when he accused the CIA of “shameful atrocities and systemic deceit.” But those atrocities have, in the vast majority of cases, been perpetrated at the behest of the American executive, not in an effort to undermine it. Erasing this difference will only enable further atrocities in the future.
The Deep State is a term first popularized in Turkey. According to Howard Eissenstat, a professor of Middle Eastern history at St. Lawrence University, the term refers to “the ways in which security services have allied with friendly members of the media, members of organized crime, politicians, paramilitary groups associated with political parties, to push politics in particular directions, and in particular to protect the interests of the security services.” In Turkey, Eissenstat says, security services have carried out assassinations of political opponents, entrapped politicians with sex scandals in order to blackmail and embarrass them, and done “all of these sorts of James Bond-y types of things in order to ensure the power of the security services and to push policy.”
The term has recently become mainstream in the US, however, as a result of online pundits and Trump surrogates. (New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer published an interesting Twitter thread on the user and misuse of the term here.) It fits into the right-wing narrative that Trump has come to Washington to “drain the swamp,” and that he’s battling for the little guy against shadowy, ugly forces. It also helps to delegitimize inquiries into the Trump administration’s possible contacts with Russia. Hannity would like to talk about an evil Deep state trying to hurt Trump, rather than about Jeff Sessions lying to Congress about meeting with Russian diplomats.
But there is no evidence that a network similar to Turkeys exists in the US. Eissenstat points to the Oliver Stone film JFK, in which the CIA and the mafia work together to kill US president John F. Kennedy in order to keep the war going in Vietnam, as an example of what a Deep State in the US might look like. But while Stone and others may believe in this kind of conspiracy theory, reputable historians don’t.
President Kennedy certainly had tension with the CIA, especially following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion; Kennedy even leaked threats to dismantle the organization. Similarly, the Trump administration has experienced pushback from government administrators and personnel. After he mocked the suggestion that Russia interfered in the election, multiple agency sources responded angrily through the media.
This kind of bureaucratic push and pull is actually fairly normal, according to Michael J. Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. “The American bureaucracy is large, slow moving, and has its own set of interests that sometimes run contrary to any president’s; members of the bureaucracy leak to the press, they push their own agenda, and they advocate for the policies that they would like to see,” Koplow says. “That describes a bureaucratic state apparatus, not a deep state. To suggest that there is a massive conspiracy that now operates against president Trump that was somehow activated with the flip of a switch on January 20, and that has not appeared at any other time in American history, is the stuff of abject fantasy.”
More importantly, the perpetuation of the Deep State narrative obscures the real consequences of an emboldened security service. After all, the FBI and the CIA do not typically engage on operations to spite the president; they’re much happier doing damage on his behalf.
In the early 1950s, president Dwight Eisenhower used the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected reform government in Guatemala, in large part to ensure the profits of the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita). The CIA established training camps in Nicaragua and Honduras, recruited and trained soldiers, and orchestrated a propaganda campaign to exaggerate the size of the forces facing Guatemala. The successful coup in 1954 was supposed to save Guatemala from Communism. In reality, it ushered in decades of corruption and poverty. That’s a legacy with which Guatemala, which has one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the world, still struggles.
The FBI’s worst excesses have also come at the behest of a president. President Richard Nixon, for example, was convinced that the Civil Rights movement was influenced by foreign powers. The CIA kept assuring Nixon that the Black Panther party was not funded by foreign agitators; Nixon didn’t believe them. He actually ordered FBI agents to collect foreign intelligence in an attempt to prove his (false) suspicions.
Similarly, former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s extended campaign against civil rights leaders was undertaken with the support of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. FBI tactics throughout the 1960s and 1970s included blackmailing Martin Luther King in an effort to get him to commit suicide and wide-scale efforts to surveil and destabilize the Black Panthers. Hoover’s actions in many cases went beyond what the executive intended. Bureaucracies will overreach if given a chance, and Hoover’s long tenure and public profile had given him an independent power base. But it was attorney general Robert Kennedy—a presidential confidant—who notoriously authorized the wiretapping of King’s phone.
More recently, some of most egregious intelligence failures of the 2000s were not caused by CIA disloyalty to the president, but rather by its servility. Before the Iraq War in 2003, president George W. Bush’s administration told the public that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though intelligence briefings indicated they did not. The intelligence community didn’t speak out publicly, nor was information contrary to the White House’s position leaked. The result was a destructive and unnecessary war.
While not universally popular, Trump has garnered the loyalty of many security personnel. Border Patrol and ICE agents in particular have spoken gleefully about how Trump has made their jobs “fun.” Emboldened agents have removed an undocumented woman with a brain tumor from a Texas hospital, arrested a life-long undocumented US resident when she spoke at a press conference about problems with ICE policies, and organized sweeping raids. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about a pro-Trump faction in the FBI prior to the November election.
American security forces have destabilized governments, trampled on civil liberties, and caused innocent lives to be lost. But these outcomes have generally been instigated or approved by the executive branch. In this way, the FBI, the CIA, and the intelligence community generally are resources that amplify the reach and intentions of American presidents, rather than undermining them. Conspiracy theories about the Deep State distract us from the real dangers America faces with a president Trump in charge of these intelligence services. The main danger from the FBI and CIA is not that they will overthrow Trump in some Oliver Stone-style conspiracy. It’s that they will do his bidding.