WASHINGTON — It was tough to get any national security official to crack a smile this week — unless you asked them about the proverbial national security boogeyman, “the deep state.”
“The deep what?” one US intelligence official said, then, “Where does she come up with this stuff?”
Since Flynn’s ouster earlier this week, far-left and -right corners have suggested his takedown was an act of the “deep state” — a behind-the-scenes military, intelligence, and national security cohort that secretly determines the direction of the country. There is no evidence, either officially or from inside sources, that anything like that exists in the US. But that hasn’t stopped some media corners, and President Donald Trump, from blaming Flynn’s ouster on coordinated nefarious leak campaigns from the dark corners of the government.
Several other officials just laughed when the term was brought up.
The origins of the “deep state” construct are pulled from authoritarian constructs — in more recent history, countries like Turkey and Egypt, or places where the security apparatuses are seen to be in control. In overly simplified terms, the “deep state” is the crux of the national security apparatus that operates just under the surface of democracy and rears up to control things when something’s going off the rails. Take, for example, Egypt’s 2013 military coup as a modern example, or Pakistan’s sweeping intelligence agency, the ISI.
The notion that the “deep state” exists somewhere in the US — or at least in the same concerted way that it does in more authoritarian countries — is a fringe concept often relegated to conspiracy forums. But we are in Donald Trump’s America, and one of his top-tier national security advisers was just felled by anonymous leaks. So, the legend of the deep state lives.
Why certain far-flung political corners cling to the deep-state myth could be due to a whole host of reasons. For the far right, it's often connected to the notion that “moderation” in certain countries — like, for example, Iran — isn’t authentic, and is a manipulative tactic by underground national security actors to bait the US into a relationship. For the far left, it can have a more positive connotation — like, for example, an army of noble leakers who will spill secrets to override bad policy.
The barrage of leaks over the last week brutally dragged the question of Trump and Russia back into the spotlight and ultimately triggered Flynn’s swift fall from grace on Monday night.
Several officials said the running assumption is that many of the leaks that killed Flynn’s career came from former Obama administration officials, many of whom would have had access to the information that was published and are now no longer in government. Figuring out where the leaks actually came from will be up to the FBI and DOJ — whom Trump said he personally called this week and urged to find who was spilling secrets.
As for the deep-state talk, as the intelligence official said, “There’s no substitute for stupid.”
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at email@example.com.
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