Michael Hayden really, really doesn’t like it when people talk about the Deep State.
Well, of course! is what you’re probably thinking. Hayden is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former director of the National Security Agency, and a former deputy director of national intelligence. If anybody embodies what President Trump, numerous right-wing Trump acolytes, and all too many progressives refer to as the Deep State, it would be Hayden. But in his just-released book, The Assault on Intelligence, Hayden patiently—and, at times, not so patiently—makes the case for why the Deep State, well, doesn’t exist.
It’s important to distinguish between the notion of a Deep State and what we all recognize as the military-industrial complex. Whereas the former implies a kind of cabal of like-minded conspirators, the latter—which does indeed exist—has enormous influence both within the executive branch and in Congress, and year after year it wields that influence to expand the already bloated military and intelligence budgets, including ever more expensive high-tech weapons systems. And while the military-industrial complex doesn’t always demand war as the solution to every global problem—the military brass and the CIA were largely opposed to the war against Iraq in 2003, for instance—it generally supports a more belligerent foreign policy than do other elements of the US government, such as the State Department.
The term “Deep State” has come to the forefront since 2016 in a very particular context: in the charge that the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI, in league with President Obama and Hillary Clinton, conspired to create a fictional event called Russiagate in order to bring down President Trump. In my view this is an unfounded conspiracy theory, not unlike many that have long been around: the conspiracy to cover up the existence of UFOs, the belief that the CIA killed JFK, the notion that the 1969 moon landing was faked, or the idea that President Bush engineered 9/11, for example.
“Resistance to the ways of the incoming [Trump] team was quickly identified as evidence of the ‘deep state,’ a phrase previously used to describe the murky military and security power centers that secretly work to thwart the democratic will in countries like Turkey,” writes Hayden. “Trump supporters like Breitbart News and Fox News’ Sean Hannity made frequent reference to it. Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said, ‘Of course the deep state exists.… They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie, and then deny that they were behind the lie.’ ”
Adds Hayden: “I have worked in intelligence for over three decades. I know what antidemocratic forces look like. I have seen them in multiple foreign countries. There is no ‘deep state’ in the American republic.”
To be sure, part of the reason Hayden and his longtime colleagues in the spy world have seen the Deep State in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and Brazil since World War II is precisely because the CIA and its fellow alphabet agencies have conspired to support, collaborate with, arm, and train the military-security underworlds in those countries, where coups d’état have been frequent. Hayden, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t get into that. If that isn’t enough to convince you that Hayden is no white knight, remember that when testifying before Congress in 2002 as NSA director, he lied about the NSA’s illegal domestic-surveillance program.
But Hayden does argue, convincingly, that the fact that so many people from the national-security establishment—including John Brennan, John McLaughlin, Mike Morell, James Clapper, and many others—have emerged as outspoken opponents of Trump has nothing to do with a Deep State conspiracy and everything to do with their horror as they watched the Trump administration take shape.
That’s true, too, of former FBI director James Comey, who just published his own book, A Higher Loyalty. For many progressives—who have long been critical of the FBI’s excesses going back to World War I, when its predecessor organization carried out the Palmer Raids, through the civil-rights movement and the 1960s, when the FBI illegally tarred Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, the student antiwar movement, the Black Panthers, and beyond—it’s not easy to say that Comey is someone whose word ought to be taken at face value. Indeed, in the very first line of his book, Comey suggests that he’s aware of that. “Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is?” he asks. Many Democrats are nodding their heads, recalling that Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation—clumsy at best, pernicious at worst—doesn’t make him the best messenger for an anti-Trump argument, even though Trump fired him as FBI director because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.”
Still, Comey’s bungling of the Clinton investigation is Exhibit A in demonstrating that the FBI (and the CIA and the NSA) didn’t join with the Democrats against Trump. (As Comey himself writes in A Higher Loyalty, “The FBI was not exactly a secret cabal of Clinton lovers.”) And if Michael Hayden were part of a Deep State cabal, it’s fair to argue that among his cabal’s first targets would have been Obama, not Trump. In The Assault on Intelligence, Hayden reiterates a string of opinions that put him directly at odds with Obama and, often, with Clinton too: He argues that Obama’s policies often “seemed more a cover for indecision and retreat”; he’s upset about Obama’s “failure to intervene in Syria”; he disliked Obama’s deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan; he chafed because Obama “stopped short of providing Kiev with defensive arms”; and he supported torture (or, as Bush administration officials called it, “enhanced interrogation”). Some Deep State, if some of its alleged top insiders lost all of those battles!
Now both Comey and Hayden are fierce opponents of Trump.
Comey, who prosecuted the Mafia as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, compares Trump to a Mob boss. “I had never seen anything like it in the Oval Office. As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob,” he writes in A Higher Loyalty. “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and the truth.”
In The Assault on Intelligence, Hayden is nearly beside himself when he recounts Trump’s contempt for intelligence reports and his callous disregard of basic facts. “We had a long list of out-and-out lies, too, like the candidate’s claim that there were pan-Islamic legions celebrating wildly on the streets of New Jersey as the Twin Towers were aflame and collapsing.” Or when Trump said that “the neighbors of the San Bernardino terrorist couple, beyond seeing suspicious behavior, ‘saw bombs on the floor,’ a claim for which there was absolutely no evidence.” Or when Trump said that killing the families of terrorists was justified because on 9/11 “they knew what was happening.… They watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon.” Or when he said that Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in the Kennedy assassination.
In one depressing passage, Hayden reveals that Trump’s thumbs were busy even while senior intelligence officials were delivering a top-secret briefing to the president. “It was not unheard of for the president to tweet during sessions (probably not about the intelligence content) or to get unhelpful nods of agreement from some in the room when he made controversial comments (like ‘We should have kept the oil in Iraq!’).”
Hayden lambasts the current White House chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, and the now-ousted national security adviser, H.R. McMaster—both, of course, candidates for Deep State membership, if one existed—for not pushing back hard enough against Trump’s outrageous behavior. “At what point,” Hayden asks, “do even good people stop being buffers and guard rails and simply become enablers and legitimizers? And at what point do they have to leave or suffer permanent damage to their character and reputation?”
Among the many believers in the Deep State conspiracy against Trump is, unsurprisingly, Trump himself, who’s repeatedly tweeted about his own belief that the Deep State is out to get him. Last November, for instance, in one of his rants against Clinton’s alleged e-mail wrongdoings, Trump tweeted, “Why aren’t our deep State authorities looking into this?” (Instead, of course, of investigating the Trump-Russia story.) He revisited that idea in January, in railing against his own Justice Department, all of whose leaders he himself appointed. “Deep State Justice Dept must finally act?” he wrote.
But there are many others who fall into this kind of thinking, unfortunately including some progressive stalwarts, such as former representative Dennis Kucinich, who just lost the primary race for governor of Ohio to another progressive Democrat, Richard Cordray. Kucinich has repeatedly declared his belief in the Deep State conspiracy, usually during appearances on Fox News programs such as those of Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, both of whom seem to delight in airing the views of left-leaning commentators willing to join Fox’s conspiracy-mongering.
The Deep State conspiracy can easily be unraveled by asking a simple question: Is it conceivable that, among the tens of thousands of people who have access to Top Secret and even higher-level classifications of intelligence, not a single one has emerged in the past two years to blow the whistle on the conspirators? (By the way, if you’re one of them and you want expose the whole thing, please contact me.)
Hayden, in The Assault on Intelligence, takes on the frequently mentioned argument that not all members of the US intelligence community signed on to the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment. The ICA, a declassified summary of a far more detailed, classified account of Russia’s 2016 intervention in the Trump-Clinton contest, concluded that Moscow did in fact meddle in the election, that it was done with the explicit approval of President Vladimir Putin, and that it was done to help Trump against Clinton. He quotes Trump himself, who said, “I heard it was 17 agencies, I said, boy, that’s a lot. Do we even have that many intelligence agencies, right? Let’s check it. And we did some heavy research. It turned out to be three or four—it wasn’t 17.”
Never mind that it doesn’t take “heavy research” to find out how many intelligence agencies there are; it’s right there on the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Speaking of Trump’s 17-vs.-3 word salad, “There is so much misleading in that verbal smokescreen.… It was prepared by the three relevant agencies listed above [CIA, NSA, FBI], but it represented the community’s view (all seventeen agencies), and if the Drug Enforcement Agency or the intelligence arm at the Department of Energy or anyone else had an objection or had something to contribute, they would have been included in the authorship as well.” In other words, that’s how the US intelligence system works. (The three key agencies agreed on nearly everything, though the NSA had only “moderate confidence” that the Russians interfered in the election specifically to help Trump win, whereas the FBI and CIA had “high confidence” on that point.)
Conspiracy thinking runs rampant in American politics, and it probably always will. We should never take what intelligence officials say as if it were carved in stone on Mount Sinai or Mount Olympus. But for all their faults—and they are many, and I myself have chronicled a number of them—it’s also true that just because a former director of the NSA, the CIA, or the FBI says something, it’s not necessarily wrong, or part of a secret plan to mislead people, or some shrouded partial truth that hides the whole story.
Many people, on both the left and the right, have challenged the narrative of Russiagate, usually with some version of “Where’s the beef?” But there is one group that hasn’t challenged it at all, namely, those who have seen the underlying intelligence—some of which ought to eventually be declassified. It is that material that allowed the IC to conclude that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s account, released the stolen material, and then helped spread its effects via social media. That group includes not only Democrats such as Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Mark Warner, the two ranking members of the congressional intelligence committees, but all of the Republicans on those committees, too, including hardcore Trump backers such as Representative Devin Nunes.
Oh, wait. Nunes must be part of the Deep State, too.
Bob Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an independent investigative journalist who specializes in politics and national security.