By Ryan McMaken*
Once a phrase generally eschewed in the legacy media, the term “Deep State” has now gone quite mainstream. In February, for example, Salon defined “Deep State” as:
The Deep State is shorthand for the nexus of secretive intelligence agencies whose leaders and policies are not much affected by changes in the White House or the Congress. While definitions vary, the Deep State includes the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency and components of the State Department, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and the armed forces.
Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald provides his own definition:
The deep state, although there’s no precise or scientific definition, generally refers to the agencies in Washington that are permanent power factions. They stay and exercise power even as presidents who are elected come and go. They typically exercise their power in secret, in the dark, and so they’re barely subject to democratic accountability, if they’re subject to it at all. It’s agencies like the CIA, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies, that are essentially designed to disseminate disinformation and deceit and propaganda, and have a long history of doing not only that, but also have a long history of the world’s worst war crimes, atrocities and death squads.
In other words, the Deep State is nothing more than agencies and individuals within the US government that have their own interests and their own agendas. Only the most naïve observers of any government would deny that life-long entrenched bureaucrats don’t have their own interests separate from both the public and the public figures who — unlike officials at the CIA — are subject to public oversight and to elections.
We might add an additional component to the nature of the Deep State that its leftwing critics predictably forget to mention: the Deep State is largely created and configured to violate property rights and to function outside the limitations of legal due process.
Privacy Rights Are Property Rights
Specifically, among its many “extra-legal” activities, the Deep State routinely engages in violating those rights protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This amendment was adopted largely in response to abuses perpetrated on Americans under British kings who used “writs of assistance” to allow for nearly unlimited searches.
In a properly functioning legal system, it is assumed that, without probable cause, the state can not read or examine residents’ personal papers. Moreover, any information seized would need to be related to some specific crime.
In revolutionary days, broad search and seizure powers were often used to destroy the livelihoods and businesses of Americans who were suspected of smuggling or aiding American revolutionaries. From the state’s point of view, the broad use of surveillance and search powers is just another means of controlling one’s political enemies.
Powers similar to those of the King’s agents in the days of yore are now enjoyed by the US Deep State. Even worse, though, those who now believe they have suffered violations of their rights at the hands of the state may not even sue those agencies without being able to prove the spying occurred. As Wired reported in 2015:
Here’s a big problem with secret spying programs in the US: To dismantle them with a lawsuit, someone has to prove that their privacy rights were infringed. And that proof is almost always a secret.
When a plaintiff thinks he has been illegally spied up, US agencies need only say “no we didn’t” and refuse to comply with any requests for related information while claiming that “national security” forbids it.
As was the case with Americans in the 18th century, even many modern-day Americans understand reflexively that secret searches constitute a violation of basic property rights, which is why national intelligence director James Clapper in 2013 lied under oath — with impunity — to Congress about the existence of the the Deep State’s mass surveillance programs.
At the time — as today — the Deep State had its apologists, and the surveillance programs were largely ignored by the mainstream media until they were exposed by Edward Snowden.
But even after Snowden’s revelations, former CIA agent John McLaughlin wrote at the Washington Post that “Now is not the time to give up any tool in the counterterrorism arsenal,” and concluded that NSA agents are all a bunch of great guys: “In my experience, NSA analysts err on the side of caution before touching any data having to do with U.S. citizens.”
Since then, criticism of the Deep State has only accelerated as these agencies have turned to openly attempting to influence the electoral process, whether we’re talking about the FBI’s on-again-off-again threats of prosecution of Hillary Clinton, or if it’s the widespread use of leaks against the Trump Administration since the election. It is precisely the Deep State’s ability to collect potentially-damaging information on anyone it considers to be a potential threat that serves as the agencies’ political bread and butter. Just as J. Edgar Hoover compiled dossiers on every politician who might curtail his agency’s power, Hoover’s successors in the modern Deep State are able to do the same.
In response to the growing acknowledgement of Deep State meddling, knee-jerk defenders of the Deep State have sided with shadowy unelected agencies over legitimately elected public officials.
Perhaps most notoriously, Bill Kristol announced on Twitter: “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”
That is: untouchable, unknowable bureaucrats are preferable to impeachable, semi-transparent publicly elected officials. For Kristol, the Deep State is also preferable to the US Constitution.
A Long Tradition of Uncritical Support for the Military-Intelligence Establishment
Kristol’s position, however, is nothing new and is reflected in the assertions of every American who has ever demanded that Americans uncritically accept the positions of foreign policy “experts.” For decades, this attitude has been captured in the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” with the assumption that no taxpayer or citizen should ever be so bold as to comment on the appropriateness of national security programs.
This position, of course, is inherently opposed to the very idea of self-government, as was summed up by Samuel Francis in 1992 in the wake of the Cold War. At the time, proposed cuts to the American military and secret-police establishment were opposed tooth and nail by the Bill Kristols of the time. Francis responded:
The self-sufficiency, the civic independence, of the citizens of a republic, the idea that the citizens should support themselves economically, should be able to defend themselves,educate themselves, and discipline themselves, is closely connected to the idea of public virtue…A self governing people is simply too busy, as a rule, with the concerns of self-government to take much interest in other peoples’ business…A self-governing people generally abhors secrecy in government and rightly distrusts it. The only way, then, in which those intent upon…the expansion of their power over other peoples, can succeed is by diminishing the degree of self-government in their own society. They must persuade the self-governing people that there is too much self-government going around, that the people themselves simply are not smart enough or well-informed enough to deserve much say in such complicated matters as foreign policy…We hear it…every time an American President intones that “politics stop at the water’s edge.” Of course, politics do not stop at the water’s edge unless we as a people are willing to surrender a vast amount of control over what the government does in military, foreign, economic, and intelligence affairs.1
This debate has not changed at all in 25 years, except now the Deep State has been given a specific name and — in a new development — is being criticized by a sitting President. The militarists of the past who denounced their opponents as “isolationists” were the intellectual forefathers of the Deep-State defenders today. Then as now, the defenders of what was once called the “military-industrial complex” preferred the “stability” of unchallenged authoritarian bureaucratic rule to the “instability” of politics that is subject to public scrutiny.
This isn’t to say that Trump is the “good guy” here. As with the US military establishment overall, the Deep State is by no means monolithic. Like any group of self-serving institutions, there are competing factions. Trump clearly has allies within some areas of the Deep State, as can be reflected in Trump’s attempts to massively expand military spending at the expense of the taxpayer.
But, as Greenwald pointed out, it’s not a coincidence that former and current members of the Deep State clearly preferred Clinton to Trump during the campaign, and that Trump is considered to be — by them — an outsider.
Greenwald, however, prefers the relative transparency of Trump — whom he considers to be dangerous — to the secret and unaccountable agents of the Deep State. Greenwald concludes that it “is important to resist” Trump’s policies, but not at the cost of supporting the Deep State.
The same might be said of anyone in favor of private property, peace, and freedom. It is important to oppose Trump’s misdeeds — as with any president — but to do so by siding with faceless unelected bureaucrats of the Deep State is a recipe for disaster.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. (Contact: email; twitter.) Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by MISES Institute.
- 1. Francis, Samuel. “Nationalism, Old and New”.Chronicles June 1992. Rockford Institute. Rockford,IL. p.20
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