The Deep State is Vulnerable to People Power

(By Juan Cole)

My remarks below were published at Bill Moyers’ site this weekend.

They came in response to Mike Lofgren’s important essay, “Anatomy of the Deep State” . Lofgren is a former congressional staffer.

Mike Lofgren’s long experience on the Hill has given him a small window, he might say only an aperture, into a vast network of unaccountable governmental and private institutions he calls the “Deep State” in his essay. There is much that is valuable in his explication of these networks, which depend on public tax money for their operation but typically do not answer to the public in any significant way. Indeed, the public is assiduously kept in the dark about much of what they do.

The danger of this invisible institutional latticework to any but a dryly procedural notion of democracy is obvious. Its menace to individual privacy and liberty is obvious. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, invisible power corrupts invisibly.

Let me, however, push back a little bit against Lofgren’s conceptual apparatus. Egypt also has a Deep State, but the young revolutionaries who overthrew the president for life in 2011 warned against using the very conception, since, they said, it overstated the paper tiger of elite power and could discourage popular action to rein it in.

Lofgren seems to me to put too little emphasis on the impact of the September 11 attacks in allowing the vast expansion of the Deep State. It paralyzed Congress and the judiciary with regard to security and terrorism. So too did World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution allow the post-war Red Scare. These moments of timidity have occurred repeatedly in US history, but have been time-bounded. As 9/11 recedes, there will likely be a reassertion of other interests, as the author implicitly admits. A federal judge has already called NSA domestic spying “Orwellian.” As Lofgren notes, Silicon Valley’s brand name is now endangered by being tagged in international markets as spyware, and powerful tech firms with plans for cloud computing are unlikely to take it lying down.

It seems to me that Lofgren’s paradigm also needs to be interrogated in two other respects. He slights the role of the president. The Iraq War was resisted by most of the institutions he names, and had to be sold so hard by the Bush administration precisely for that reason. It was not a project of the Deep State but of interlopers from Dallas and Houston. The conflicts among these institutions and within them is also slighted. The National Security Council had a virtual civil war over intervening in Libya and was tipped into it by NATO considerations; Deep State icon and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was opposed. Wall Street historically dislikes foreign wars because they are inflationary.

If the Deep State is not monolithic but divided over policy, and if it is in fact much more responsive to the exercise of public political power than the author admits, then it is vulnerable to a vigilant public.


The Moyers/ Lofgren interview on The Deep State is here:

For other reactions to the essay by Andrew Bacevich, Danielle Brian, Henry Giroux and others, click here.

22 Responses

  1. The exercise of Deep State capabilities, as you point out, is constrained in various ways, but its development and refinement are increasing at what must be a logarithmic rate of sophistication. We may always get back to that cliché that its only a tool; but oh what a tool. We’re on borrowed time before the ever increasing temptation to exercise its ever-increasing and ever-tempting power can no longer be resisted.

    And not just by those righteous folk from Dallas and Houston: its part of the Human Condition. Rationalizations will be constructed, in the same way we’ve seen the FBI create Terrorists out of near-destitute blowhards. Paraphrasing Madeline Albright as she pushed for more robust military action in Kosovo: what’s this big, expensive, and incredibly capable military good for if we aren’t going to use it?

  2. It is important to preserve hope among reformers, and both articles commendably oppose despair, with hope that reforms may yet organize, that the dark state is diverse and may serve a reformed democracy, that hunger for change may overcome fear, that a great leader may emerge as saviour. But of course hopes do not address the problems.

    While security agencies are diverse and can serve democracy when better regulated, the diversity is expunged by the right wing, and the failure to regulate is the result of failed democratic institutions which have not themselves been “vulnerable to a vigilant public.” The dark state “invisible power corrupts invisibly” but gold is the invisible power which had already corrupted the visible institutions.

    Lofgren says that we need only a “self-confident figure” to tell us that “national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas” and “the people themselves will unravel the Deep State with surprising speed.” But the “deep…hunger for change” that he sees was deeper in 2008 when so easily destroyed by its “self-confident figure” Obama by simply not mentioning what “outworn dogmas” he would change. Blaming later Hill gridlock when he had two unopposed years without action only enables obfuscation. The more hawkish Hillary is not about to “unravel the Deep State” and mere self-confidence will not finance campaigns or buy media support to do more than split the vote of reformers. The media and elections must first be freed of gold, and the people cannot do that without free media and free elections.

    While history is full of surprises, and in US history “moments of timidity…have been time-bounded,” the succession of cold-war fearmongering by global war upon diffuse “terrorist” backlash and political opposition to half-witted right wing imperialism does not suggest that “9/11 recedes,” nor that any lesson was learned from three generations of failed military adventures with no relationship to the declared national principles. The cancerous dark state has grown in proportion to the failure of right wing foreign policy, and the failure of its own rationales. It is the triumphant institution of right wing tyranny as the immune dark sovereign over a failed democracy.

    Democracy may make further ultimate progress in China than in the US, or may survive only in micropowers of no interest to the right wing. But we must have faith in the power of the people, or we lose hope and take no action.

    • “While security agencies are diverse and can serve democracy when better regulated, the diversity is expunged by the right wing, and the failure to regulate is the result of failed democratic institutions which have not themselves been “vulnerable to a vigilant public.” ”

      It is not only the right wing that is a problem. The entire Washington, DC establishment of amoral power players is among the greatest obstacles to an enlightened and civilized nation. Its members are in it for what they can get out of it, and they have no concern for the people over whom they have so much influence. The 2004 Radio and television correspondents dinner –March 24, 2004 = link to showed the moral bankruptcy of the “in” people who attended the banquet and found George W. Bush’s skit making fun of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMDs to be hilarious. Only one person had the integrity to walk out – David Corn now of Mother Jones. There were a few with sufficient decency to be embarrassed but not enough to join David Corn in heading for the exits. While they were enjoying this joke hundreds of loved ones of American dead and maimed who were victims of those Bush administration lies suffered at home. Make that ditto for tens of thousands of Iraqis. And these are the people in whose hands the fates of ordinary citizens are sometimes placed.

      • “The entire Washington, DC establishment of amoral power players is among the greatest obstacles to an enlightened and civilized nation.”

        What makes you think the “entire Washington establishment” is filled with “amoral power players”? How many do you know? How many have you any idea of their biography? I doubt that you could name the “entire Washington, DC establishment,” much less provide evidence that they are “amoral power players.” You are probably against essentializing various ethnic, religious, and racial groups; yet you apparently feel completely free to essentialize many in Washington, DC of whom you know nothing about. That says more about you than it does about those whom you rail against with your lack of evidence.

        • OK. I’ll concede “entire” was not a good choice of words, but a sizable and effective portion of them promoted the immoral and illegal war on Iraq, while they indicate they would be willing to have a go at Iran, even though very knowledgeable people indicate that would be a similar crime and bigger blunder for the US than Iraq. Your choice: Amoral or immoral? Either one nothing to be proud of. The power players in Washington have more than most to say about what happens in the United States and that included the economic crisis of 2008, thanks to the lobbyists of K Street and their campaign bribe donors and recipients who helped to overturn Glass-Steagall. How did you enjoy Dubya’s skit about the elusive WMDs? Were you in league with the elites at that correspondents dinner and did you too find it hilarious?

        • ” I doubt that you could name the “entire Washington, DC establishment,” much less provide evidence that they are “amoral power players.” ”

          Evidence? How much do you need? We don’t need to know the names and phone numbers of the power players in Washington. We just need to know what they did and are doing. Illegal and immoral wars, shredding of the Constitution, interference in the affairs of other nations, assassinations by drones and other means often including innocent women and children, destruction of the environment, media columnists and talking heads on television who got it disastrously wrong on Iraq are deploying similar mendacity and distortions on Iran and elsewhere, condoning the slaughter of hundreds of people in Gaza, lying to elected officials in Congress and those elected officials who punish some for their lies but let others lie all they want, feeding the military-industrial complex with contracts for armaments that the military and navy don’t want while they advocate cutting programs that the poorest among us depend on for survival. Need more? There is more where that came from..

          Your implication that we need personal knowledge of people we criticize is meretricious nonsense. Did you know Edward Snowden personally before you got into criticizing him?

          By the way, did you enjoy that skit of Dubya making fun of the non-existent WMDs that were the basis of the lies that got us into the war on Iraq?

        • It appears I might have to make a retraction. Someone just slipped a note over the transom to my office. It is marked “TOP HUSH HUSH” and says the Washington elites are not responsible for any of the disasters I have referred to. It was some bad apples in the typing pool.

        • “You, however, seem to make no distinction between your perception of a “Washington, DC establishment of amoral power players” and the literally thousands of government workers, many in high positions, who you might be surprised to learn are not all your loathsome “power players.”

          It is absurd to conclude that the thousands of people working in government offices equate to “power players” especially after some of the real power players caused a shutdown that cost them 16 days of work (and pay)..

          How did you enjoy the skit?

      • Many who do not identify with or even approve of the right wing act as their enablers. Obama and Hillary seemed to move sharply right to gain campaign funds enroute to power, and much further right once immersed in the groupthink of security agencies. They are valuable to the right wing as figureheads who can still speak to the people of their rights and ideals, while doing nothing for them, and doing in secret whatever the right wants. Those in DC who do work for fundamental reform should not be surprised at the occasional conclusion that they do not exist, as they must be painfully aware that the result is not broadly visible.

  3. The modern day power holders have many advantages, but one advantage could be critical. The public perceives that college graduates, factory workers and others have lost opportunities. They do not perceive that the centralized powers have stolen anything from them. If the public ever perceives that a defined entity is stealing directly from them, they will rise-up and fight back in some manner.
    In developing countries, the antidote to centralized war-lord style concentrated power is expansion. War lords often just seize new enterprises or sources of wealth and the peasants are powerless to fight back. They cannot fight back unless they make alliances with a different war-lord and they join that competing faction’s patronage system.
    In the western world, most attempts at creating expansion of wealth and power have shown to be too weak so far. We do not have a tradition of, say, the localists or worker cooperatives building alliances with outside sources of power. So far, the so-called “new economy” people are not a threat and have not built anything that the central power holders would want to seize. But when the Wisconsin Governor took away the public workers’ union, the union members could perceive a clear issue of someone stealing from them and they fought back.
    At this point, we have almost no base of power that could be subject to attack and thus define the issue that would generate a meaningful effort to take back power.

    • “They do not perceive that the centralized powers have stolen anything from them. If the public ever perceives that a defined entity is stealing directly from them, they will rise-up and fight back in some manner.”

      Part of the problem is that the tea partiers see these people and think they’re liberals; progressives see the same people and *know* that they’re conservatives. Banks/Wall Street are the perfect example. Tea-partiers see them as liberal moochers off of the government/taxpayers; progressives see them as conservative moochers off of the government/taxpayers.

      One thing the power elites have done that is truly masterful is the perfection of the divide and conquer approach against the bottom 90%. To a very large extent, grass-roots people hate the same people but they can’t get over their different naming conventions to see that their interests in many areas coincide.

  4. “If the Deep State is not monolithic but divided over policy, …, then it is vulnerable to a vigilant public.”

    And there lies the problem. In these instances the public is more likely to be apathetic for a long time before it becomes vigilant.

  5. Pierre Omidyar’s new media project – link to – could be a game changer with some of the most independent journalists already on board – Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras, Matt Taibbi, etc. If that doesn’t work, then it may be time to head for the hills – or South America.

  6. Some nice links about how the Deep State became embedded in Metro Detroit:

    link to

    link to

    The “fusion centers” and “joint terrorism task forces” have made state and local police accomplices with the U.S. intelligence community since 2001 in conducting highly invasive surveillance of Arab-Americans.

    • Two little extracts from your second link:

      With new antiterrorism laws, such as the USA Patriot Act adopted last year to allow agencies to share information more easily, investigators can cast a wider net than ever.

      “We have done things under the Patriot Act that we weren’t able to do before,” said Mark Kroczynski, special agent in charge of the IRS criminal investigation division in Detroit.” No bull.


      Some informants, taking advantage of the government’s eagerness to develop sources, have tried to use investigators to settle personal vendettas.

      “People divorce, things go sour, the next thing you know, someone’s calling the FBI,” said Tim Attalla, a Dearborn attorneyand community activist.

      In one case, an Arab informant agreed to help a divorced friend strike back at his ex-wife and former brother-in-law by making up a story to the FBI, according to sealed federal court records obtained by the Free Press. The informant told the FBI that his friend’s ex-wife and her brother were smuggling weapons and making death threats.

      In a phone conversation intercepted by the FBI — and transcribed in the court documents — the informant bragged about his perceived ability to manipulate the government:

      “Stop being scared. . . . I know how the government operates, you do not,” he told his friend. (Apparently not…)

      • ” ‘the next thing you know, someone’s calling the FBI,’ said Tim Attalla, a Dearborn attorney and community activist.”

        Mr. Attalla, a Palestinian-American, would later find himself under a federal indictment for drug possession after an FBI informant claimed to see him with a Viagra tablet. The indictment also accused him of obstruction of justice for advising an arrestee not to submit to police interrogation.

        He waived his right to a jury trial for obvious reasons.

        At bench trial, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds acquitted him of the drug charge for lack of sufficient evidence – she dismissed the obstruction of justice charge before trial. The assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case congratulated Attalla after the judge issued her judgment from the bench.

        Attalla’s earlier advocacy of the Palestinian cause had received international media attention.

  7. Interlopers from Dallas and Houston weren’t responsible for the war in Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice as well as George Bush sold the war to a VERY ignorant American public who wanted PAYBACK against Muslims for 9/.11. Obama play his supporters much the same way with his “war of necessity.

    The Deep State runs deeper than most think.

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