But it might not be what you think.
By Michael Crowley | September/October 2017
POLITICO MAGAZINE — At a conference in mid-July , Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, remarked that executive branch officials have an “obligation … to refuse to carry out” outrageous or anti-democratic orders from President Donald Trump. The comment quickly caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who saw nothing short of a threat to the republic. “He practically called for a coup!” the radio host bellowed on the air a few days later, warning of a plot orchestrated by “embeds in the deep state at the Pentagon, State Department, various intelligence agencies.”
Embeds in the what? A year ago , the term “deep state” was the province of Edward Snowden acolytes and fans of paperback espionage thrillers. Today, Limbaugh takes it for granted that his millions of listeners know what it meant.
Political scientists and foreign policy experts have used the term deep state for years to describe individuals and institutions who exercise power independent of — and sometimes over — civilian political leaders. They applied it mainly to developing countries like Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, where generals and spies called the real shots in nominally democratic societies and replaced elected leaders when they saw fit. (Turkey and Egypt have recently moved to more overt security-state dictatorships, in which the deep state is the only state.)
For a generation, the people who saw something like an American deep state — even if they rarely called it that — resided on the left, not the right. The 9/11 attacks triggered the rapid growth of an opaque security and intelligence machine often unaccountable to the civilian legal system. In the 2000s, the critique focused on a “war machine” of military and intelligence officials, defense contractors and neoconservative ideologues who, in some versions, took orders directly from Vice President Dick Cheney. In the Obama era, the focus shifted to the eerie precision of “targeted killings” by drones, and then the furor over Snowden, the ex-National Security Agency contractor whose 2013 leaks exposed the astonishing reach of the government’s surveillance. “There’s definitely a deep state,” Snowden told the Nation in 2014. “Trust me, I’ve been there.” […]