David Rohde, former New York Times reporter, is publishing a book about Trump’s conception of the “deep state.” In an interesting interview with Terry Gross of NPR, Rohde explains how President Trump has successfully politicized the intelligence community and turned his critics among the former spy chiefs into useful foils–even decoys–for his own ambitions.
I haven’t read the book yet but in the interview, I think Rohde skims a little too fast over the story of how the U.S. intelligence community’s arrogance and poor performance has discredited the foreign policy establishment and national security elite. Rohde is astute about Trump’s intentions but, like a lot of people in Washington, he tends to overlook or underplay just how badly the U.S. national security system has failed in the 21st century. At least that was my sense of the NPR interview.
I assume that Rohde, an executive editor of newyorker.com who won Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for reporting that helped expose the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, knows this history, and I expect he covers it in the book. In talking to Gross, he does make the key point that the history of U.S. intelligence is essential to put Trump’s war on the “deep state”–his ongoing “intelligence purge”–into perspective.
Thirty years ago, the CIA escaped accountability for the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which the agency’s top officials substituted their own foreign policy for the will of a Congress that explicitly barred the agency from intervening in Nicaragua’s civil war. In 1992, on the advice of Attorney General Bill Barr, President George H. W. Bush pardoned three top agency officers who mounted the scheme in violation of their oath to uphold the Constitution. Back then, few at the agency complained about Barr’s expansive views of presidential powers. Indeed, the CIA gratefully named their headquarters building after Bush. Now that Barr and Trump want to prosecute former director John Brennan, the CIA’s regard for the Constitution has suddenly blossomed.
Eighteen years ago, the CIA’s spurious findings about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction justified a war that destabilized the Middle East and killed millions of Iraqis, not to mention nearly 5,000 Americans. Director George Tenet got a medal for his blown assignment.
The establishment of an illegal, immoral and ineffective torture policy from 2002 to 2009 further discredited the agency. But when the Senate Intelligence Committee tried to do what the Church Committee did in the 1970s–establish accountability via full disclosure–the CIA censored the story, and President Obama didn’t dare object. Amnesia prevailed over accountability.
(Hollywood made a good movie, The Report, which tells the whole sorry story in gripping and accurate detail.)
Today, the authors of those failed policies–CIA directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan and NSA director James Clapper–are among Trump’s harshest critics. It’s not a conspiracy theory to think their desire to oust Trump is more self-serving than principled.
Trump, uniquely among the 2016 presidential candidates, supplied a political response to the failures of the national security elites in the 21st century. In 2020 only Bernie Sanders rivaled Trump in skepticism about the national security elite, which is why national security types quickly coalesced around Joe Biden. Between Trump and Sanders voters, a solid majority of the American electorate is implicitly or explicitly hostile to the country’s national security leadership. The intelligence community hasn’t come to terms with this reality.
The politicization of intelligence empowers Trump’s demonization of the intelligence community as a self-serving liberal cabal. His “deep state conspiracy” may be a fiction but it is a fiction stewed with unpleasant facts that the intelligence community prefers to avoid. The “national security” apparatus that launched, justified, and defended two failed wars costing trillions of dollars in the last twenty years is dysfunctional. It no longer commands widespread respect, and for good reason. It hasn’t earned it. Deep state conspiracy theories are the manifestation of the public’s mistrust. They are not the cause of it.
Endless war has enabled Trump to turned the tables on the intelligence community. Since 1947 the “deep state” agencies of the U.S. government–led by the CIA and NSA–have endowed the American presidency with unique, almost god-like powers. In return, every president since Ronald Reagan has protected the CIA and the intelligence community from accountability.
Now the secret agencies that have lost the public’s confidence find themselves confronting a president who wields the immense power of the office with the clear corrupt intent: to eliminate those in the intelligence community, and the federal government in general, who want to hold him accountable. The president who had gone rogue on a national security elite that assumed it would always have functional control of the presidency. Now the unaccountable intelligence community suddenly has a hankering for accountability.
Better late than never you might say. But maybe it is too late. Maybe the hollowed-out institutions of democracy–balkanized political parties, a Congress for sale, disrupted news organizations, and coopted courts–that couldn’t hold the CIA accountable for Iran-Contra or torture or Iraq’s non-existent WMD, cannot hold a lawless president accountable either.
Terry Gross asked Rohde a key question.
Do you feel like the president is creating a deep state of his own?
ROHDE: I do, and that’s really what I fear. And I don’t know if, you know, this is a calculated thing by Trump or if he’s just reacting to the political maelstrom around him, but he’s – sort of under the guise of stopping a coup that doesn’t exist – Trump is steadily upending the checks and balances that have really protected American democracy for centuries now. He’s politicizing the Justice Department and other parts of the government to protect his friends and attack his enemies. And he’s basically creating a parallel shadow government filled with loyalists.
The acting director of national intelligence is a Richard Grennell, a former press spokesman with no intelligence experience. Trump’s nominee for the job permanently is John Ratcliffe, a Texas congressman best known for inflating his resume.
Rudy Giuliani is sort of a private citizen carrying out this shadow foreign policy. Sean Hannity is a private citizen acting as a communications arm of the White House. And none of them, you know, have to answer government accountability government disclosure laws. They can all carry out their work in secret. So ironically, Trump is creating, you know, a shadow government without transparency, without democratic norms, without any kind of public process. And he’s creating a deep state of his own.
Rohde is right that Trump is succeeding. He may even be winning adherents among his putative enemies. Early in her tenure as CIA director, Gina Haspel refused to put the agency’s stamp of approval on Trump’s effort to whitewash the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But then in March 2019 Haspel issued a factually dubious public statement describing Trump as an “engaged and knowledgable” consumer of intelligence. In January 2020 Haspel broke with Capitol protocol and applauded the president during his State of the Union address. If Trump wins a second term, he will likely have friends at the top in Langley.