Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, offers us a striking look at the term the president and his men have been tossing around endlessly these last years: the "deep state." Actually -- no surprise, given TomDispatch and our world -- the deep state's been on the collective mind of this website for the last 17 years. At least, that's true if what we're talking about is this country's ever more powerful national security state and not just whatever government officials Donald Trump has felt frustrated by in the last 24 hours.
As it happens, though, in the privacy of my own thinking, I have another term for it entirely. I think of it as the "shallow state." Because to me, the deep state implies something hidden, something hard to see. In these years, however, the national security state, which Pentagon experts William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger estimate had a combined annual budget of at least $1.25 trillion in 2019, has become remarkably visible. It has, in essence, become the fourth branch of government.
In a sense, there's nothing deep or hidden about it. In a sense, in fact, that "state" couldn't be more seemingly proud of its visibility. Consider that, as far back as 2010, in "Top Secret America," a revealing series at the Washington Post, William Arkin and Dana Priest reported that, "in Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001." And we're not talking about hidden structures either. Take just two examples: in 2011, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency opened a gleaming $1.7 billion headquarters, then the third largest building in the Washington area (the Pentagon being the first), for its staff of 16,000. And only last April, the Department of Homeland Security did the same. In a public ceremony, Kirstjen Nielsen, its departing secretary, cut the ribbon on a staggeringly over-budget $5 billion headquarters and "campus" in southeast Washington for 14,000 of its employees. By the way, it just happened to be the "largest construction project in the Washington metropolitan area since the Pentagon was built during World War II."
So no shrinking violets, much less hidden worlds there. Talk about in your face: the shallow state is right in front of you daily and growing fast. And with that in mind, consider with Gordon where the very term "deep state" came from and what it means today. Tom
That Expression Trump Keeps Using
It Doesn't Mean What He Thinks It Means
By Rebecca Gordon
This seems like a strange moment to be writing about "the deep state" with the country entering a new phase of open and obvious aboveground chaos and instability. Just as we had gotten used to the fact that the president is, in effect, under congressional indictment, just as we had settled into a more or less stable stalemate over when (and if) the Senate will hold an impeachment trial, the president shook the snow globe again, by ordering the assassination of foreign military officials and threatening the destruction of Iran's cultural sites. Nothing better than the promise of new war crimes to take the world's attention away from a little thing like extorting a U.S. ally to help oneself get reelected.
On the other hand, maybe this is exactly the moment to think about the so-called deep state, if by that we mean the little-noticed machinery of governance that keeps dependably churning on in that same snow globe's pedestal, whatever mayhem may be swirling around above it. Maybe this is even the moment to be grateful for those parts of the government whose inertia keeps the ship of state moving in the same general direction, regardless of who's on the bridge at any given time.
However, that sometimes benign inertia is not what the people who coined that term meant by deep state.
What Is a "Deep State"?
The expression is actually a translation of the Turkish phrase derin devlet. As historian Ryan Gingeras has explained, it arose as a way of describing "a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy." In the Turkish case, those "unacknowledged persons" were, in fact, agents of organized criminal enterprises working within the government.
Gingeras, an expert on organized crime in Turkey, has described how alliances between generals, government officials, and "narcotic traffickers, paramilitaries, terrorists, and other criminals" allowed the creation and execution of "policies that directly contravene the letter and spirit of the law." In the Turkish case, the history of such alliances can be traced to struggles for power in the first decades of the previous century, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The interpenetration of the drug cartels and government in Mexico is another example of a deep state at work. The presence of cartel collaborators in official positions and in the police hierarchy at all levels makes it almost impossible for any president, even the upright Andre's Manuel López Obrador, to defeat them.
The term "deep state" has also been used to characterize the role of the military in Egypt. As Sarah Chayes has written in Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Egypt's military has long been a state-within-a-state with its own banking and business operations that constitute 25%-40% of the Egyptian economy. It's the country's largest landowner and the ultimate maker and breaker of Egyptian presidents. In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak, who had run the country for 30 years, to resign. The military certainly had something to do with that resignation, since he handed over power to Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
When, however, a nascent democracy brought their longtime opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, to power with the election of Mohamed Morsi, that was too much for the generals. It helped that Morsi made his own missteps, including the repression of peaceful protesters. So there wasn't much objection when, in 2012, his own minister of defense, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, led a military coup against Morsi. Sisi and the Egyptian military have run the country directly ever since, making the state and the deep state one and the same.
Donald Trump and the "Deep State"