“Deep State” Interview

Link to Interview and comments

Controlled by shadow government: Mike Lofgren reveals how top U.S. officials are at the mercy of the “deep state”

A corrupt network of wealthy elites has hijacked our government, ex-GOP staffer and best-selling author tells Salon

One of the predominant themes of the 2016 presidential campaign thus far — and one that is unlikely to lose significance once the primaries give way to the general election — is the American people’s exasperation with a political system they see as corrupt, self-serving, disingenuous and out of touch.

It is not an especially partisan or ideological sentiment; you can just as easily find it among supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders as among fans of Donald Trump. You can even find those who support paragons of the status quo, like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, making similar complaints. It’s about as close to a consensus position as you’re likely to find nowadays in American politics.

Yet despite the widespread agreement that something is seriously wrong with democracy in the U.S., there’s much less of a consensus as to what that something is — and, crucially, how to fix it. The answers Bernie Sanders offers, for example, are not exactly the same as those proffered by Donald Trump. Is the problem too much government? Not enough government? Too much immigration? Not enough immigration? Too much taxing and regulating? Not enough taxing and regulating?

Our lack of a systemic analysis of the problem is part of the reason why our answers are so diffuse and ill-fitting. And that’s just one of the reasons why “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government,” the new book from ex-longtime GOP staffer turned best-selling author Mike Lofgren, is so valuable. Lofgren puts a name and a shape to a problem that has often been only nebulously defined; and while his conclusions are not exactly uplifting, the logic and sophistication of his argument is hard to resist.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Lofgren about his book, the deep state and his read on the current sorry state of American government and politics. Our conversation, which also touched on President Obama’s relationship with the deep state, was edited for clarity and length.

How should we think about the deep state? Is it an elite conspiracy? A loosely defined social group? A network of specific institutions? How should we conceive of it?

Well, first of all, it is not a conspiracy. It is something that operates in broad daylight. It is not a conspiratorial cabal. These are simply people who have evolved [into] a kind of position. It is in their best interest to act in this way.

And given the fact that people would rather know about Kim Kardashian than what makes up the budget or what the government is doing in Mali or Sudan or other unknown places, this is what you get: a disconnected, self-serving bureaucracy that is … simply evolving to do what it’s doing now. That is, to maintain and enhance its own power.

When do you think the American deep state first started?

Probably, it started in WWII, when we had the Manhattan Project, which was a huge secret project that required tens of thousands of people to be working in complete secrecy — and we actually built enormous cities [for the project’s workers] … and no one knew they existed.

You also had the so-called Ultra and Magic secret [operations], the decoding of the Nazi and Japanese codes that required an enormous number of people to be doing absolutely top secret work that they did not reveal to anybody for decades. So, WWII created this kind of infrastructure of the deep state, which increased and consolidated during the Cold War.

What are the key institutions and players within the deep state? 

The key institutions are exactly what people would think they are. The military-industrial complex; the Pentagon and all their contractors (but also, now, our entire homeland security apparatus); the Department of Treasury; the Justice Department; certain courts, like the southern district of Manhattan, and the eastern district of Virginia; the FISA courts. And you got this kind of rump Congress that consists of certain people in the leadership, defense and intelligence committees who kind of know what’s going on. The rest of Congress doesn’t really know or care; they’re too busy looking about the next election.

So that’s the governmental aspect. What about in the private sector?

You’ve got Wall Street. Many of these people — whether it is David Petraeus … or someone like [Bill] Daley, who is the former chief of staff to President Obama … or Hank Paulson, who came from Goldman Sachs to become Treasury Secretary and bailed out Wall Street in 2008; or the people that Obama chose to be Treasury secretary — like Tim Geithner. They all have that Wall Street connection.

And the third thing now is Silicon Valley.

Oh? Why is Silicon Valley now so central?

Because they generate so much money that they are rivaling and sometimes surpassing Wall Street. The heads of Google or Apple make more money than the guys running Wall Street. They make more money than Jamie Dimon. So that’s the new source of cash to run the deep state.

Silicon Valley provides a lot of money. But it also has access to an unfathomable amount of information. Which do you think is more valuable to the deep state — the cash or the info?

I think you can’t distinguish the two. There is a tremendous amount of money coming, in terms of lobbying, for Silicon Valley to get what it wants in terms of intellectual property and so forth.

At the same time, NSA insiders have told me that they couldn’t even operate without the cooperation of Silicon Valley, because the communication backbones that are set up and operated by Silicon Valley provide the vast majority of information that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are going to exploit — and they can’t do it themselves. They need the willing or unwilling cooperation of Silicon Valley.

But when the Snowden leaks first hit, a lot of Silicon Valley elites implied they didn’t knowingly or willingly work with the government, no?

There was a certain amount of deception there, after the Edward Snowden revelations. They claimed, Oh, well, the NSA made us do all these things! — but not really, because NSA, CIA, and these other intelligence organizations were also involved in giving seed money or subsidies to various Silicon Valley companies to do these things.

Right. Which raises the question of whether the line between the public sector and the private sector even matters anymore, at least when it comes to the deep state. 

It is hard to distinguish them anymore.  All these guys simply go through the revolving door to the point where you can hardly distinguish [government employees from private sector workers]. A good percentage of the people sitting at their desks right now in the Pentagon are private sector contractors. They are literally in the Pentagon, in the NSA building, in all these organizations. They are the ones who essentially run the show, by virtue of having the technical knowledge.

Snowden himself was a contractor.

Yes, he was a Booz Allen contractor. How is it that a Booz Allen contractor — a junior person — had access to all this information? It certainly doesn’t say much for Gen. Keith Alexander, who was the director of NSA at the time. How can he bitch and moan about Snowden? He was responsible for having him cleared, and for letting low-level contractors have that kind of access. And yet now he is working in some boutique cybersecurity firm on Wall Street and making a ton of money.

Do the people who work in the deep state have a common ideology or narrative that they tell themselves and one another, something that justifies their behavior or explains why their interventions into the democratic process are “necessary”?

I think it’s an ideology that dare not speak its name. They claim it is not an ideology, that it is simply their technocratic expertise giving you the benefit of their knowledge. However, their knowledge is always based on a neoconservative view of foreign policy, [and] in domestic policy, it enforces neoliberalism.

On a personal level, it is kind of, Well, we’re just doing the best we can or If only everyone appreciated how hard it is to decide whether to torture subject A or subject B when you are in the CIA or If only everyone appreciated how hard it is to decide privatize this or that. You just don’t really appreciate how difficult things are for us.

They sort of act like stoical martyrs when you ask them about why they actually do these things.

Do you think that sense of martyrdom explains the revolving door problem? I’m imagining something along the lines of these people saying to themselves, Well, I sacrificed for my country; so now I deserve to cash out

I am sure they all acculturate themselves to that viewpoint. And when the money is there; you don’t want to leave it lying on the table. They certainly don’t. And our laws against that kind of behavior are nonexistent, or can be gotten around, so why nottake the money?

I once made a joke to a friend that President Obama was to the deep state what the press secretary is to the president. Was I closer to the truth than I realized? Or was I going too far?

I don’t believe so. [Obama] was a guy who was so carefully cultivated. You saw that already in the 2004 Democratic convention. He was going to filibuster the FISA Amendments Act regarding the telecoms illegal collusion with intelligence agencies, but somewhere in 2008, he decided he was going to vote for it. And that was right about the time that somebody supplied him with John Brennan, the current CIA director, who was going to tutor him on what it takes to be president from the national security perspective.

It doesn’t suggest a lot of autonomy on Obama’s part. 

This guy is to some extent controlled. That doesn’t mean he is not articulate or bright or doesn’t know what’s going on; he is obviously more so, on all accounts, than his predecessor. But Obama, or any other president, has a very limited latitude of what he’s going to do on the very big issues of international finance and national security. He is very hemmed-in on those accounts. So he becomes a kind of a spokesman.

Just hypothetically, what do you think would happen if he tried to push the envelope and publicly reject some foundational element of the deep state?

I don’t think we really know what would happen, because the incentives for these people are so carefully aligned with what they’re “supposed” to do. Obama has already had White House dinners with very rich contributors about setting up his pharaonic monument, the Obama Presidential Library (which is going to require billions in funding). That already constraints how much he’s going to go rogue.

And we have to only have to think back to Clinton on his way out the door. He signed a bill which took the wraps off derivatives trading. He claimed later that somehow his hand was forced and that it was going to be written anyway and all that; I don’t think so. He ended up being paid over $100 million afterwards, mainly by corporate sponsors, to give speeches. It was kind of like compensation after the fact.

Given the ubiquity and continuity of the deep state, will it matter whether the Republican or the Democrat wins the presidential race later this year? Or will it be the same either way?

It matters to a certain extent. A competent rogue is probably preferable to an insane one. There are definable differences between Bush and Obama. However, the differences are so constrained. They’re not between the 40-yard lines; they are between the 48-yard lines.

Is there any scenario in which the deep state’s influence and power can be curtailed or eliminated? Or does the fact that it’s evolved sort of organically suggest that only something truly revolutionary could upend it?

The deep state has created so many contradictions in this country. You have this enormous disparity of rich and poor; and you have this perpetual war, even though we’re braying about freedom. We have a surveillance state, and we talk about freedom. We have internal contradictions. Who knows what this will fly into? It may collapse like the Soviet Union; or it might go into fascism with a populist camouflage — like Trump is selling us.

Elias Isquith is a daily columnist at Salon who focuses on politics and inequality. He tweets at @eliasisquith.