The ‘Deep State’ Isn’t a Conspiracy. It’s a Political Faction

John Brennan
Former CIA director John Brennan on the 2020 election (Credit: CSPAN)

[This story was first published in The New Republic as “‘The Deep State’ Is a Political Party,” November 8, 2019)]

It was, in the eyes of Trump World, the very clubhouse of the Deep State: the plush, blue-carpeted, wood-paneled 13th floor auditorium of the National Press Club, located in the heart of the Washington swamp, just two blocks from the White House. The Halloween-eve panel discussion featured a line-up of heinous perps indicted by the “stable genius” of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: On the far left sat the bulky former CIA director John Brennan (“a liar about being a liar,” according to Donald Trump); on the right, the winsome former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe (“major sleazebag”). In between, two dutiful understudies held forth: former acting CIA directors Mike Morell (“total Clinton flunky”) and John McLaughlin, the only speaker on the stage not yet honored with a vilifying Trump call-out. At one point, McLaughlin said, “Thank God for the Deep State,” which RT and Fox News cited as proof of perfidy in the president’s critics.

The event was, according to the participants themselves, a defense of the federal government, a gathering of the leaders of the American civil service—“a crown jewel of the American government,” in McLaughlin’s words. They occasionally threw shade on Trump while voicing justified concerns about election integrity in 2020; unqualified praise for the intelligence community’s commitment to truth-telling; and debatable claims about that community’s apolitical character. They encouraged the many young people in the audience to pursue careers in intelligence and law enforcement. “He won’t be president forever,” Morell said. The event, sponsored by the Gen. Michael V. Hayden Center at George Mason University, was titled “2020 Vision: U.S. Intelligence and the Presidential Election.” It enabled me to see something more clearly: The CIA is emerging as a domestic political party.

I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial sense (though it has conspiratorial implications), and I don’t mean it literally. Although there are three former CIA employees in Congress (and a fourth is running), the CIA does not resemble the Democratic or Republican parties. But in practice, the U.S. intelligence community, led by former officials, is developing into an organized political faction—call it the Intelligence Party. Like other factions, at home and abroad, this faction is seeking to gain public support and influence the 2020 presidential election to advance its institutional and political interests.

For Trump World, the October 30 event embodied the dreaded Deep State in action. The president’s embattled defenders demonize the CIA as a secretive law-breaking organization, but seem unconcerned about the verifiable harm it actually does in the world (such as torture, arms trafficking, drone warfare, and regime change). Nor do Trump stalwarts commend the intelligence community for the good things it does (counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation). No, the CIA is the enemy because of its intellectual sophistication and lack of slavish loyalty to the president.

For the former leaders of the deep state organizations, the U.S. intelligence community—comprised of 17 different agencies with a combined budget of more than $70 billion a year—is defending the highest standards of public service, analytical thinking, and patriotic action by resisting the president’s anti-democratic impulses. What the intel community actually does—and whether it serves the interests of American democracy—is not explained in these leaders’ attacks on the ignorant real estate mogul who lives around the corner.

In the panel discussion, Brennan restated the Intelligence Party’s message on Russian interference in the 2016 election, calling it “a sweeping and systemic effort” that may or may not have changed the outcome of the election. McCabe stressed that Trump’s victory turned on tallies in four states, including Michigan, which was decided by 11,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. He noted that Paul Manafort, Trump’s now-felon campaign manager, had shared polling data from those four states with Russian interlocutor, Konstantin Kilimnik, in August 2016. Looking ahead to 2020, the panel was not optimistic; Morell said the Russians  were undeterred by the U.S. response to their 2016 interventions. “They are doing it here, right here, right now,” he said. 

John McLaughlin CIA
John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Of course, the CIA has long been involved in domestic political affairs. In the 1950s, the agency fought off the Trump-like attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy. In the 1960s, agency operatives were involved in the events that led to the assassination of President Kennedy (though exactly how is disputed). In the 1970s, CIA operatives figured deeply in the Watergate affair. (Again, the details are murky.) In the 1980s, four top CIA officials were indicted for their role in the Iran-Contra conspiracy to bypass anti-interventionist legislation passed by a liberal Democratic Congress. (The details are abundantly documented). One of their cases was dismissed when the U.S. government would not share classified evidence; the other three perps were pardoned by lame-duck Republican President George H. Bush, himself a former CIA director, who acted on the advice of an attorney general named William Barr.

The agency’s defenders insist it has shed the legacy of its Cold War excesses. Yet in the 2000s, top CIA officials, including Brennan and Hayden, collaborated with the Bush administration in implementing a legally dubious, morally repugnant regime of torture, with only the most superficial approval of Congress and zero input from American taxpayers and voters. And when the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to publish its investigation into the abuses, the CIA, led by Brennan, deposited much of the report into the memory hole of official secrecy.

In the face of Russian meddling and Trump’s indifference to it, the Intelligence Party is mobilizing again. What is new is the open involvement of former top intelligence officials in electoral politics and the selection of a president. Trump’s assault on the U.S. governmental system gives them little choice: The president is a threat to their ethos and their budgets, because they are a threat to The Donald’s dreams of omnipotence and multimillion-dollar business deals. Agency veterans, with ample experience in analyzing authoritarian governments and implementing regime change policies, know full well the danger that someone like Trump poses. For both parties, the 2020 election is the inflection point. This increasingly open power struggle between the secret agencies and an out-of-control president is not the only unprecedented feature of America’s constitutional crisis, merely the most puzzling.

Indictments Coming?

The event’s moderator, Margaret Brennan—no relation to John “that we know of,” she joked—is a senior correspondent for CBS News, and she noted that she’s actually a work colleague of Morell, a national security contributor for the network. For their parts, Brennan and McCabe should probably pay rent on the chairs they occupy so often in the MSNBC and CNN studios, respectively. McLaughlin, too, has a perch, on the Washington Post editorial page. For many mainstream newsrooms, reporting on the CIA’s ubiquity in domestic political coverage is not a priority. It might lend credence to Trump’s ravings.

The Intelligence Party is threatened most immediately by its former ally, Attorney General Bill Barr. Last April, Barr said the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of multiple contacts between the Trump entourage and Russian state actors amounted to “spying.” Last week, the Justice Department let it be known that its probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, is now a criminal investigation.

Andrew McCabe
Andrew McCabe, former deputy FBI director. (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

McCabe said he had expected to hear from Durham and that he would cooperate. “It’s on my list,” he said, to laughter. The problem, he continued, is that “some folks, and possibly even the attorney general, are bringing a set of preconceived notions and biases to that investigation”:

If that’s the case—and I don’t know that it is, but there are certainly some indicators that it might be, or that the purpose of the investigation is not really to get to the bottom of what did we know and why did we make the decisions we did, but it’s more to run out political conspiracy theories—that causes me great concern.

McCabe is right to worry. With Trump taking a beating on impeachment, the Democrats—and the Intelligence Party—have regained momentum lost after the damning but understated Mueller report dropped. The president needs a comeback, and questions about the factual basis of the Trump-Russia investigation offer an opening. But the Durham inquiry is not the biggest problem facing the Intelligence Party; based on the Mueller report, federal agents had ample reason to investigate Trump’s entourage.

The leaks that followed Trump’s election are probably the bigger legal vulnerability for the former spy chiefs. The Federalist, a Trump-friendly website with shadowy funding run by a Republican political operative and a serial plagiarist, has provided a narrative template that an aggressive prosecutor might be able to fill in with legal charges: In this account, Brennan and Co. orchestrated a “coup” via a series of leaks to the Washington Post, New York Times, and NBC News, designed to hamstring Trump’s presidency before it even began. These leaks, attributed to “U.S. officials,” involved classified information, namely the CIA-NSA-FBI assessment of Russia’s role in the election. The passing of classified information, depending on the circumstances, could be construed as a violation of the Espionage Act, the same law used to prosecute whistleblowers like Reality Winner and Edward Snowden. The former spy chiefs didn’t say it at the panel, but their body language betrayed the thought: Trump’s response to impeachment is likely to be indictments. 

At the reception afterward, I asked Brennan if he felt the attorney general was conducting the Justice Department investigation in a fair-minded way. “Are we on the record?” he asked. I said yes. “I’m not going to comment,” he said.

“Are you at all concerned,” I asked, “about the agency’s growing profile in domestic politics?” 

Brennan put a friendly finger on my chest. “The CIA is not involved in domestic politics,” he said. “Period. That’s on the record.” 

This he asserted confidently, at an event where he had just spoken about about influence campaigns on swing voters and implied that Hillary Clinton might be right in calling Rep. Tulsi Gabbard a Russian asset. Even seasoned analysts, it seems, have their blindspots.


8 Replies to “The ‘Deep State’ Isn’t a Conspiracy. It’s a Political Faction”

  1. Just to clarify… It’s clear after I finished reading the article that the author is not — at least overtly — an IC insider. But the article is so filled with anti-Trump disparagement that the best that can be said is that he is caught — but only mildly conflicted — between his Trump-hate and the self-evident Intel Community subversion-slash-treason. His Trump-hate blinds him to this truth, and makes him into an apologist for the Intel Communities horrific subversion of what little remains of our democracy. He should be ashamed of himself . He needs to get his head straight.

  2. Even if there are indictments, nothing significant will come of them.

    Why?

    Barr is CIA covert ops who was in the thick of Iran/Contra. Once CIA, always CIA.

  3. Thanks for a fairly measured and well argumented analysis of a key facet of the current Trump-centred U.S. political debate. I would add one significant element : the very term “Intelligence Community” takes a new meaning in the Information Era, where data and their interpretation have an overwhelming importance. I believe a major focus of the IC’s campaign aims not so much at countering Trump himself, but at defeating the very dangerous drift from decisions made on documented analysis and rational debate toward emotional bursts, prejudice-based opinions and instinctive hunches. This does not mean we have to subscribe to all the policies defended by the IC — of course, they are conditioned by a very specific ideology — but the very process it promotes is worth preserving, and its survival is directly threatened by the Trump Presidency. Not only in the U.S., but all over the planet.

  4. Jeff, I guess it should be no surprise I read all this differently than you do.

    I see CIA as clearly being involved in U.S. domestic politics. Front companies overseas pushing whatever and CIA moles working in the domestic and foreign media to spread hate and discontent, which seems especially true now days. What else could it have been when CIA stood by idly and then lied about the assassination of JFK.

    It was third world politics of the bullet. Speaking of third world the same can be said of CIA getting involved in the United Fruit Co. fracas.

    I believe the reason Allen Dulles and Robert Blum wanted the Agency to be privately funded was to avoid political scrutiny of their agenda. Which was politically motivated by the rich who now had their own arm of government.

    Why, because it allowed the super wealthy around the world a conduit into the U.S. Congress using the likes of America most notorious wealthy families to lobby directly to congress for deals friendly to their overseas friends.

    I know it sounds “off the wall” but look at what CIA history we know about and sure enough it fits the description.

    But I don’t want to get too hung up on just this.

    Aren’t you dismissing the fact the CIA , especially, has been drawn out into the open by the 2016 election and this Trump mess. And that’s not to say anything about the NSA in particular but NSA is having their difficulties also.

    Doesn’t it follow that if the Patriot Act was a power grab by the security state, which I believe it ended up being, and then a U.S. Presidential election is compromised by a foreign entity, that CIA should have had a handle on it and who, we know didn’t.

    I think CIA’s read on this is suspect, I believe they see opportunity here.

    CIA I believe is in serious trouble if they aren’t very careful. The public is already suspicious as the sentiment of the public on the JFK episode shows us.

    Especially CIA handling of JFK investigations.

    You don’t think CIA got politically involved in the Church and Pike hearings.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs here but money and politics became welded together like never before after WWII and the creation of CIA.

    Then Wiki Leaks and a CIA on defense, I think they are plenty worried.

    I with the current political morass in D.C. CIA sees an opportunity to become a powerful political power broker in the current battles for authority. I agree with you especially given the current status of the SCOTUS and DOJ. This only proves to me that CIA could have always been a political player. All one must do is review the political career of one G.H.W.B. who made CIA political by his own efforts. 41 the guy flip flopped between CIA and politics his entire life.

    Maybe we should ask Bill Barr who is such a great advocate of an extreme right wing government.

    If you have been director of on a member of CIA you need not be president or a member of congress.

    If you have been CIA, in congress or the military you should not be allowed to lobby congress. Time to break up that incestuous party.

    One last shot!

    Non of what I have written here seems strange at all to me since I have considered
    both parties to be pretty much the same since WWII. The two party system is simply a ruse. The two parties no longer govern they manipulate, together sometime sometimes not so much,

    Bill Moyers may have said this first long ago when he claimed a democracy cannot exist when it includes a secret arm in it’s government.

    So much for these “fake heroes” who spend billions, kill millions and produce very damned little real intelligence. “Weapons of mass destruction” my ass!

    If CIA gains control there will be no politics except those of the police state.

    Thanks Jeff but Brennen is a liar!

  5. One additional comment.

    I write of what I believe the Deep State is and now I think I may have a good example with the individual Paul Manafort of one good example of the unofficial “dyed in the wool” Deep State facilitator. Much like Bush 41, and Bill Barr, Paul has been around D.C. for decades. During the same time and 41 & Barr were sneaking around doing the bidding of CIA.

    No? Look at their actions, cause and effect! I have and I’ve seen enough to convince me they weren’t just “regular guys” conducting “regular business” as usual.

    These are three men who lives seem to be filled “irregular” activities.

    Who controlled or controls Paul Manafort. Hard to believe the man is left to his devices during the numerous adventures of his career. With no apparent benefactor pointing him is the proper direction ever.

    His well traveled circles remind me of likes of Allen Dulles and Frank Carlucci except he never seems to be hard wired to CIA. Running around acting much like an ambassador but with no such openly supported authority from the U.S. Government.

    Then returning to the scene of the escapades of his youth where he heavily dabbled in Presidential politics on three earlier occasions only to end up in jail after going back to the “well” maybe one time too many.

    Something very strange seems to be going on here, such is the life of the individual who acts as “bagman”,a shadowy , hired political consultant and engaging on the peripheral edges of money laundering connected to gun running and other unsavory activities. Engaging in activities, in my opinion, that qualify as those efforts desired by someone to support the Deep States agenda around the world. Acting as “the conduit”.

  6. I profusely apologize for writing openly what I was thinking in the two comments above. CIA has always been political just maybe not so much in a purely domestic sense. I hope what I wrote helps make my point though.

    Scott Ritter has a provocative piece at CN an seems to make his point very clearly in his offering.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/27/scott-ritter-the-whistleblower-and-the-politization-of-intelligence.

    I will submit to you that the CIA has gotten flushed out into the open. The CIA’s involvement in politics world wide is no secret to think the organization is not involved in domestic politics is to ignore exactly what is wrong with the agency.

    And it always has been that way. They lie, make and keep secrets because of their actions are taken to advance specific politics, which we know are all local.

    Who is it among them who are guilty? The leadership. All organizations are like fish, the head rots first.

    If anything unsavory were to happen to the “Fake President” the optics would be absolutely horrible for CIA. That option is closed for them for the foreseeable future the current “heat” is to harsh for the guys at the top.

    What to do? Go open with the efforts to remove him, and ad more chaos to the current morass in D.C.. Just as Brennan lies to us, CIA is not involved in domestic politics.

    Right, John, not now or ever has been. Time to run up the “bullshit flag”.

    The U.S. intelligence community among those of other nations work in conjunction with the Deep State’s Super Wealthy Elitist (SWETS) interlopers world wide.

    The off shore banking industry I personally believe is used by CIA and other such agencies from foreign countries but it is ran at the behest of the “International Deep State”.

    This is what I see here. Do representatives of the Deep State work for CIA, you bet. Are they all deep state no way only those at the top calling the shots.

    The same can be said about international banking.

    As the world shrinks under the pressure of computerized communications the anomalies become more and more apparent.

    Mt Dog what a mess!

  7. I cannot simple leave this alone. Ken Hughes in his book “CHASING SHADOWS, dedicates an entire chapter to Anna Chan Chennualt and for good reason.

    The in first chapter, “CHASING SHADOWS” a cryptic three pages in length Hughes sets the stage for the incredible chain of events to follow.

    Alexander Sachs, who had warned FDR of Hitlers plans to pursue an Atomic Bomb warned LBJ that Nixon was out to sabotage LBJ’s peace talks and Anna and John Mitchell were working the issues.

    Hughes book is a little gem full of info that could be relevant today. Exposing Nixon as a possible traitor during time of war.

    A story not totally dissimilar to the one on the front pages of today’s news. The book reveals CIA wire taps on the US Embassy in Saigon which serve proof to Nixon’s efforts to thwart LBJ’s attempts to get a peace agreement.

    We never heard much about the involvement of Anna and John Mitchell who encouraged her actions.

    I don’t want to seem to be beating a dead horse but had Nixon convinced his “plumbers” to break into the Rand Corp to steal the Pentagon Papers, a classified document things would have been different.
    e
    Hughes finds these tapes at the Ford Presidential Library and they should be used to correct history. The tapes of the LJB White House prove what Nixon intended because LBJ warned by Alexander Sachs learned of Nixons deception.

    If one were to acquire Hughes Chasing Shadows I would plead that they first read the first two chapters, ten pages there and then go to pages 170 & 171 and read them. Now try and not go back and read the entire book.

    Hughes proves beyond a doubt that often things are not as the seem.

    This isn’t the first time CIA and the republicans have been up the their necks in criminal activity the nature of which is treasonous.

    Many many similarities that warn that CIA cannot avoid controversy at the highest levels of government can be found in Chasing Shadows and the current discord in D.C..

    I strongly suspect that neither CIA or the Republicans would be fond of having the Deeps States dirty laundry from the Vietnam era dragged out into the sunlight.

    Chennualt, John Mitchell, Richard M Dick Nixon and a host of CIA and State Department officials share the guilt of lengthening the war in Vietnam and costing the lives on over sixteen thousand US troops and thousands of Vietnamese.

    VETS NEVER FORGET

    This book is 171 pages of some the most explosive treachery ever unleashed on Americas fighting men and almost no one knows anything about it.

    READ THE BOOK or better yet get the tapes.

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