The Mysteries of Deep States

Following the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the New York Times has reported that a “miraculous” restoration of civil services hints at an intentional campaign to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Times writes:

As the interim government struggles to unite a divided nation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s supporters say the sudden turnaround proves that their opponents conspired to make Mr. Morsi fail. Not only did police officers seem to disappear, but the state agencies responsible for providing electricity and ensuring gas supplies failed so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.

“This was preparing for the coup,” said Naser el-Farash, who served as the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Mr. Morsi. “Different circles in the state, from the storage facilities to the cars that transport petrol products to the gas stations, all participated in creating the crisis.”

Despite coming to power through the freest elections in Egyptian history, Mr. Morsi was unable to extend his authority over the sprawling state apparatus, and his allies complained that what they called the “deep state” was undermining their efforts at governing.

The Times presents compelling evidence that behind-the-scenes in Egypt, bureaucrats and private factions acted in concert to undermine the basic functions of government, with the aim of fomenting public support for the military coup which ended up ousting Morsi. The “deep state” is inextricably embedded within the structures of government and willing to undermine civilian rule in order to protect its interests. A deep state with this makeup has disturbing ramifications: an amorphous, undemocratic shadow government will harm, terrorize and deprive the citizens it ostensibly serves if it perceives its interests to be threatened. It’s one of those ideas that we as Americans would prefer to think happens in Those Countries Over There™. However, there are parallels to a chilling series of reports from early in Barack Obama’s presidency that hints at the power and depth of America’s own deep state.

When the Obama administration entered (or remained in) Washington, they publicly declared that there would be no prosecutions of Bush Administration officials for war crimes. The story began seeping out to reporters that a decisive factor in Obama’s decision had been the administration’s fear of a rebellion in the intelligence community. Several months into Obama’s first term, Joe Klein of Time magazine reported that a veteran spy told Klein there could be “a potential rebellion in the clandestine service” should Obama fail to show proper fealty to the national security state. Christopher Edley, a member of Obama’s transition team, reiterated “that Obama might have faced a ‘revolt’ by leaders of the military, the National Security Administration and the CIA.” Though Edley was careful to stipulate that he was not talking about a literal coup, the fact that the Obama administration so profoundly abrogated the rule of law out of fear of the national security state is astonishingly chilling.

To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, when it comes to America’s deep state, as far as the national security community goes, there is none more deep. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning series Top Secret America, Dana Priest and William Arkin report that the national security state has gotten so big that its size is literally incalculable “There’s only one entity in the entire universe” that can calculate the size of Top Secret America, explained current-DNI James Clapper to Priest. “That’s God.” The national security priesthood, as many refer to it, calls the shots—and like any priesthood, it is  insular and segregated from the public it’s supposed to serve. “Getting a clearance is like walking is like walking through a mirror into an alternate universe,” Priest says in her book Top Secret America.

Ultimately, we’ll never know what would’ve happened to the Obama administration had the newly elected President chosen to defy America’s deep state actors. Would the intelligence community have simply stopped doing their jobs, the way they threatened to cut off intelligence-sharing with the UK if the British revealed details of how a British citizen had been tortured? The consequences of a 44th President willing to uphold the rule of law will remain an interesting counterfactual. The public is, however, afforded occasional glimpses of what happens to those who run afoul of the national security community.

In a July 1st 2013 interview with Democracy Now, military journalist Jack Murphy explained that Gen. David Petraeus’s fall from grace had been engineered because Petraeus had clashed with national security elites during his tenure at the CIA. Petraeus, Murphy explained, had an acrimonious relationship with Clapper specifically and, more generally, with the  “people on the seventh floor of the CIA—managers and officers.” Consequently, “CIA insiders and other people inside the government contrived a situation in which he was forced out of the administration in a way that was politically disgraceful, that would knock him out of the political game for years to come.” “King David” was so revered that, in 2007, Congress drafted a resolution condemning an ad that had  dared to criticize Petraeus. As one of the most powerful figures in America’s most-respected institution, Petraeus had been untouchable…until he earned the ire of the national security priesthood at the helm of America’s own deep state.

If an intransigent deep state was indeed at work in Egypt pre-coup, then the widespread deprivation and civil disorder are a disturbing illustration of what an entrenched power structure can do when it feels threatened. Rather than dismissing the dynamics at work in Egypt as one of those uniquely foreign political tragedies, we should reflect on what we know about our own “sprawling state apparatus.” If our elected officials are incapable of exercising control over that apparatus out of fear, then we might have more in common with Egypt than we’d like.