The American Deep State

by , May 27, 2011

Osama bin Laden was killed in "posh Islamabad suburb" where he lived for six years and,  as Eli Lake recently wrote in The New Republic, "almost certainly relied on" some elements of Pakistan’s  military and intelligence apparatus to do so safely and secretly. This process was enabled by what Lake calls Pakistan’s "deep state." That is, Pakistan’s national security bureaucracy is sufficiently muscled and autonomous to work relatively independently of Pakistani political leaders.

He describes Pakistan’s deep state like so: "a network of current and retired intelligence and military officers who are actively undermining the official policy of Pakistan’s government." What Lake’s article astoundingly misses is that this seems a perfect description of the situation here in the U.S. Neoconservatives like Lake have found it extremely difficult to comprehend when condemning other nations for profound evils or institutional failures: for them it is a grave and reproachful wrong, even threat, while our exact behavior or mishap is either forgiven by default, or utterly imperceptible, as seems to be the case with Lake.  

When it comes to a network of retired intelligence and military personnel that confer the "unwarranted influence" Eisenhower warned about, America likely outmatches Pakistan. In a Boston Globe review conducted last year, it was found that "750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades" moved "into what many in Washington call the ‘rent-a-general’ business." "From 2004-2008," the report found, "80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives" in our massive military-industrial complex. Among the Globe findings: 

    - Dozens of retired generals employed by defense firms maintain Pentagon advisory roles, giving them unparalleled levels of influence and access to inside information on Department of Defense procurement plans. 

    - The generals are, in many cases, recruited for private sector roles well before they retire, raising questions about their independence and judgment while still in uniform. The Pentagon is aware and even supports this practice. 

    - The feeder system from some commands to certain defense firms is so powerful that successive generations of commanders have been hired by the same firms or into the same field. For example, the last seven generals and admirals who worked as Department of Defense gatekeepers for international arms sales are now helping military contractors sell weapons and defense technology overseas. 

Lake’s "deep state" critique seems to center on the ability of this network of retirees to excessively influence state policy and even work to undermine the national interest for their own benefit. The U.S. defense budget is the largest piece of the budget and unceasingly increases despite a lagging economy and crippling levels of federal debt. America’s bloated, corporatist, military-industrial complex disproportionately influences policy and results in a violent and oppressive military empire of global reach which manifests in various ways that endanger the American people.  

As for the intelligence community, it is well known to be, as a Washington Post investigation put it, "so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work." "Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies," reported the Post, "work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence." This is a monster, unelected intelligence world that is clearly beyond the grasp of any President or Congressman and, since it maintains its employees beyond election cycles it almost surely operates with a level of autonomy that would make most voters and policymakers cringe. In a post-9/11 world where our highest enemies are the result of blowback, these realities are not rocket science.  

The U.S. national security apparatus has additionally proven strong and durable enough to pull virtually all post-war presidents into line to form a shockingly consistent foreign policy that most of the electorate is unaware of and would surely be appalled to fully understand.  

Yet Pakistan’s "deep state" is the one we ought to worry about. 

In trying to clarify that this is a Pakistani problem and not a U.S. problem, Lake writes: 

    All modern democratic societies have powerful national-security bureaucracies, but a deep state is a bureaucracy that has more power than the political leaders it ostensibly serves. One former senior U.S. counterterrorism official described Pakistan’s problem this way: "Imagine if the CIA was supporting the drug cartels of Mexico over the wishes of the Congress and the White House," he said.  

So when the CIA trained and funded the Nicaraguan Contra army who smuggled cocaine into the U.S. with CIA knowledge and protection, contributing to the crack epidemic and street gang violence in Los Angeles in the 1980s, that doesn’t qualify? And when Manuel Noriega of Panama received CIA largesse while drug trafficking, money laundering, and facilitating Contra drug deals, that also doesn’t count? And then when the CIA funded the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets despite the fact that they used part of those funds to ramp up their massive heroin trade and opium refining capacity, at one point having provided up to half of all the heroin used in the U.S., that’s to be ignored as well? (See here for more on the CIA and Drugs.) To a certain extent these ventures occurred with some knowledge of respective presidential administrations and congressional leadership, but were a secret to the vast majority of elected representatives and to this day mostly unknown to the American people.  

But of course it goes beyond just drugs. Most of the facts and realities about the United States national security state are not generally known about, face very little oversight, and often violate U.S. law. Everything from lavish, decades-long support for Middle Eastern dictatorships to assassination programs of U.S. citizens to all that which is too classified for any of the public to know about right now is done in the dark, without the knowledge of the people and their elected officials, and in direct contradiction of the interests of the United States. The "deep state" in America seems more threatening and out of control than does Pakistan’s. 

Perhaps even more menacing is the near universal predisposition of Americans to place a religious-like faith in their nation. This tribal commitment to God and State, to the flag and its supposed spirit, facilitates a kind of nationalism that dissolves any ability to criticize America as they criticize other countries. It keeps alive a country-wide devotion to the principle "wrong for them, right for us." Pakistan’s military and intelligence communities are overly secret and engage in all kinds of overreach; apparently America’s is a well behaved arm of the hallowed national interest.

Read more by John Glaser