Loren DeJonge Schulman writes: Here’s a handy rule for assessing the credibility of what you’re reading about national security in the Trump era: If somebody uses the term “Deep State,” you can be pretty sure they have no idea what they’re talking about.
The phrase’s appeal is undeniable. The notion of a shadowy network pulling the strings in Washington is an attractive one to an embattled White House and its political opponents, shorthand-employing commentators and conspiracy theorists alike. But uncritical use of this canard is lazy at best and counterproductive at worst. The term, which political scientists invented to refer to the networks of generals and spymasters that rule many authoritarian states around the world, has migrated from leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy to the alt-right advisers running the White House. As a card-carrying former member of America’s vast national security bureaucracy, I find it offensive. But I also find it offensive as an analyst, because it’s a deeply misleading way to understand how the U.S. government really works.
So what is — or isn’t — the Deep State?
Let’s start with standard insinuations of the phrase. There are more than 2 million civilian executive branch employees (not counting the U.S. military or portions of the intelligence community, which does not fully report employment numbers). At least half of that number work in an agency related to national security, broadly defined. When combined with the million-plus uniformed military and support system of contractors, this is an unwieldy group. A mix of hard-working patriots, clock-punchers, technocrats, veterans and scammers, these folks swear the same oath to defend the Constitution.
Hollywood bears much of the blame in portraying this group as some combination of Rambo, the All-Seeing Eye of Mordor and the cast of Homeland — an omniscient guerilla force unaccountable to any authority. Reality is less made for the big screen; if, say, “Zero Dark Thirty” had been true to life, it likely would have been a single shot of 100 hours of lawyers’ meetings. The national security bureaucracy does wield awe-inspiring capabilities that could be disastrous if abused; months sitting through the Obama administration’s surveillance policy review made that clear. But while civil servants and military personnel do pledge to defend the Constitution, it is not only the goodness of their hearts but a complex web of legal, congressional, bureaucratic and political oversight that guards against such risks. These checks are met with both grumbles and keen awareness of how they set the U.S. rule of law apart from, say, Russia. These systems are not foolproof, and could undoubtedly be improved. The flaws of the administrative state — ranging from redundancy and waste to self-interested bloat to inability to innovate to scandalous incidents of corruption — have been well documented, its day-to-day successes far less so. But find me an alternative to the national security bureaucracy, or find me a functioning state without one. [Continue reading…]