What Is a 'Deep State?'

February 24th 2017

President Donald Trump has dealt with a wave of leaks at the highest levels of government from officials who have provided confidential information to news outlets, shining a light on the early stumbles of the administration.

The flood of leaks has revealed what some observers see as the rise of a "deep state" in the United States: a shadowy network of string-pullers manipulating a nominally democratic government.

Deep states are common in countries with strong, heavy-handed control by the military or secret police.

But does the U.S. have such a state within a state? Or is the suggestion of such a state the result of disgruntled civil servants threatened by Trump's administration?

Where does the term "deep state" come from?

A car crash on Nov. 3, 1996, in the small town Susurluk, Turkey, killed a high-level police chief and a notorious right-wing militant and badly injured a member of Turkey's parliament, all of whom were riding together.

An investigation into the accident asked why these people would be in the same car and revealed the deep connections among Turkey's nominally democratic government, organized crime syndicates, and law enforcement.

The "Susurluk scandal" gave rise to the term "deep state" to describe the massive and hidden apparatus devoted to protecting Turkey's secular institutions from undue influence by Islam and from Kurdish separatists. It often took the form of extrajudicial killing, military control, and the suppression of dissent.

Turkey expert and National War College professor Omer Taspinar told The Atlantic that the Turkish deep state was "a clandestine network of retired intelligence officials, mafiosi, and others who engage in prosecutable criminal activity." Turkey's deep state is still at work, though weaker than it has been in decades past.

What other countries have a deep state?

The other country most often thought of as having a deep state is Egypt. But Egypt's deep state differs from Turkey's, with more outward military control.

"We see the same concept [of a deep state] being used in Egypt today, the sense that the military is not necessarily ruling directly, but that there is this sort of set of institutions," Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, told PBS' Frontline. "What you have is kind of underneath the surface of politics, this underlying set of structures that's running things."

As in Turkey, Egypt's powerful military colludes with domestic police and intelligence to keep the government in line, uses patriotic media to disseminate official messages, and generates enormous wealth through state ownership of economic engines.

It's believed that the deep state was at work when the Egyptian military, under pressure from popular protests, stepped in after longtime President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011 — and again when Egypt's generals overthrew his democratically elected replacement in a coup two years later and installed one of their own as president.

Is a deep state working to undermine Trump?

A number of Trump supporters believe he's being victimized by a secret cadre of Obama administration holdovers who constitute a state within a state. An American deep state operating outside the executive branch was blamed for the intelligence leaks that precipitated Trump's firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

The theory of a deep state infecting U.S. intelligence agencies is "a convenient scapegoat as the new administration takes a beating in the press, protests throughout the country deepen polarization, and leaks pour out of the White House," Foreign Policy magazine opined.

But some Trump opponents think the president himself is running a deep state, taking into account "Trump's attacks on the press, his effort to delegitimize the judiciary, the unexplained links between the White House and the Russian government, and the seemingly purposeful effort to sow instability in the country," Foreign Policy said.

Does a deep state even exist in America?

Definitely not.

An American deep state has been posited by both left-wing outlets such as The Intercept and AlterNet, as well as by right-wing media sources such as Breitbart and Infowars.

But there's little agreement on what it's doing and for whom.

Most think it's working against Trump. Others think it's the only thing stopping Trump from a total purge of American ideals.

And some experts pooh-pooh the existence of any organized intelligence effort to damage the Trump presidency at all.

If America does have a deep state, did it start with Trump?

Some authors believe the links among the government, intelligence agencies, the defense industry, and the media represent a kind of longstanding American deep state.

"I think there's always been a deep state in America, and there have been times when it has been very repressive," author Peter Dale Scott told Pacifica Radio in 2014.

Scott is the author of "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK" and attributes almost every event in American history to a shadowy group of powerful string-pullers. "You could say the deep state found it convenient to have a revolution and get free from the British government, which was about to end slavery," he said in the same interview.

But observers of the Turkish deep state scoff at the notion that the United States is anything like that country.

Turkey's deep state was criminal in nature, Naval War College professor Omer Taspinar told The Atlantic. "It was not the judiciary, the civil society, the media, or the bureaucrats trying to engage in checks and balances against a legitimately elected government. What we're witnessing in the U.S., it's basically the institutional channels."

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