How the Deep State Came to America: A History
Almost two years have passed since the “deep state” became a part of the American lexicon. It was in early February 2017, just weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, that news reports first mentioned the term’s increased use within the president’s inner circle. Over the following months the president and supporters of his administration publicly embellished upon the deep state’s meaning and significance, making it into a catchphrase for perceived internal adversaries within Washington. News analysis of the phenomenon has done much to shed light on how the worldview of right-wing activists such as Steve Bannon and Alex Jones helped introduce administration allies to the concept of the “deep state.” Though the term has been cause for much circumspection within political media, it is now clear that the notion of the deep state has assumed some importance for the American public. According to a Monmouth poll from the spring of 2018, a total of 37 percent of respondents had heard of a thing called the deep state. When asked if they believed there was “a group of unelected government and military officials who secretly manipulate or direct national policy,” almost three-quarters of respondents agreed such a “deep state” existed.
The concept of the deep state has been a subject of interest for me for some time now. As a historian of the Republic of Turkey, I was first exposed to the term almost 20 years ago as a graduate student. When I began to first visit Turkey in the early 2000s, anyone who spoke of the deep state did not do so facetiously or critically. Serious people not only accepted the existence of a Turkish deep state, but they tended to believe it comprised an important element that defined Turkey’s past. For more than a decade much of my research has been dedicated to understanding many of the individuals, institutions and events associated with the Turkish deep state. Among the works that inspired me to look more closely at Turkey’s deep state phenomenon were books and articles written by a Canadian diplomat-turned-professor named Peter Dale Scott. His 1993 book published by University of California Press, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, caught my attention as one of the few academic studies to frame American history in a light similar to Turkish discussions of the deep state. In 2007, I had a chance to interview Scott on a (thankfully) short-lived podcast I had published while a professor at Long Island University. Our discussion occurred within weeks of the publication his newest work, The Road to 9/11, in which he used the term the “deep state” for the first time. It was as a result of this book, and the exposure he received thereafter from Alex Jones and others, that many Americans first entertained the notion that a deep state lorded over the United States.
What follows is not so much a quest to debate or define the deep state’s existence but to trace the history of how and why the phrase entered American parlance. It is a story that begins first in Turkey, where the term was first conceived, and stretches into how scholars and commentators have applied it elsewhere. How Peter Dale Scott learned of the concept and came to relate it to the United States is instructive as to the insights and pitfalls that have long marked the evolution of the concept. Conspiracies inside of government, or the appearance of conspiracy, can be found within the annals of most countries, including the United States. Revelations concerning these plots have often led observers to conclude that secret cabals are intrinsic to a nation’s politics, forming institutions unto itself. Aspects of Turkish history, as well as cases elsewhere, suggest that such a phenomenon is not completely the product of fantasy. Yet defining what exactly constitutes a deep state, let alone documenting its existence, is another matter. The story of how the deep state entered American consciousness underscores the inexact science and fancifulness that hampers any discussion of secret states and shadow governments.
Turkey: The Ur Deep State?
It is not possible to talk about the development of modern Turkey without considering its history of governmental conspiracies. Conspiratorial parties and events lie at the heart of several important events that have defined the country’s modern history. It is abundantly clear, for example, that the Republic of Turkey was established by individuals who had helped form a veritable “state within a state” during the later years of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founder, was counted among the seminal members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the political party that ruled the empire during its final decade. While the CUP upheld the façade of being an open party committed to parliamentary government and the rule of law, its members maintained a secret parallel system of control over the country.
As the empire entered the final throes of its collapse, the CUP relied upon its clandestine arms to maintain power and eliminate perceived threats to the state. Among the chief acts associated with this concealed power structure was the Armenian genocide, which was in part executed with the aid of paramilitaries and civilian loyalists linked to the CUP. While Atatürk may have stayed aloof of the government’s anti-Armenian policies, secretive CUP operatives proved instrumental in supporting his rise in the lead-up to the republic’s establishment in 1923.
For some scholars, the CUP era led to the development of a culture of conspiracy and subversion within the ranks of the Turkish state. The repeated military coups that wracked Turkey during the 20th century are often depicted as a legacy of the CUP’s dependency upon cabals within the Ottoman army to maintain its grip over the empire. Of all the events that have come to epitomize the role of secret factions within Turkish history, the so-called Susurluk Incident of 1996 stands as the clearest and most visceral case pointing to the enduring power of clandestine actors. The case, which exposed the government’s recruitment of gangsters as hitmen to prosecute its dirty war against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), appeared to point to a broader pattern of malfeasance and violence among members of Turkey’s political establishment. Susurluk seemed to suggest that the elected government was merely a shell that masked the identity of the country’s true rulers, a list which included elements of the military, the intelligence service, the mafia, and the business elite. The goal of this alliance, it was generally assumed, was simple: kill or discredit anyone who they believed threatened the integrity of the Turkish state and nation. The secretive, extralegal nature of this presumed establishment was essential to what most citizens came to believe was Turkey’s deep state.
The Susurluk incident helped popularize the notion of the “deep state,” but it did not necessarily spawn its conception. To this day, it is not entirely clear who coined the phrase or when it was first used. Although some have posed that it was first used by leftist commentators before 1996, one journalist has suggested that the expression first came from the lips of the government minister who helped recruit the Susurluk assassins. Regardless of its precise point of origin, the concept became an essential part of the Turkish vocabulary by the start of the new century. Even though there was little agreement as to exactly who or what constituted the Turkish deep state, popular anxiety over the existence of a parallel system of government authority was among the most important factors to lead to the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. As prime minister, Erdogan pledged a “clean hands” approach to government and vowed to root out the deep state, which he contended had existed since the last days of the Ottomans. In 2008, it appeared that he had begun to deliver upon this promise. Over the next several years, prosecutors alleged that a single secret organization, calling itself Ergenekon, had been behind a string of conspiracies aimed at undermining and controlling the Turkish state. The roots of this cabal, which purportedly comprised senior military officers, officials, politicians, gangsters, and journalists, were depicted as decades old, dating back to events even before the Susurluk scandal.
Convictions in the Ergenekon trial were widely heralded as a sign that the deep state had finally met its match (a conclusion Erdogan himself promoted). Yet even at the time, critics raised doubts about the validity of the government’s case, casting it as an attempt to weaken opponents to the AKP government. Ahmet Şık, a prominent investigative journalist, was among the first to claim that the Ergenekon investigation was an enterprise directed by police and state attorneys loyal to a religious movement headed by Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based cleric then allied with Erdogan’s government. The eventual split between Erdogan and Gülen, which may have prompted the attempted coup of July 2016, has done much to cloud what the Turkish deep state ever meant. According to state prosecutors and many pro-Erdogan commentators today, Turkey’s deep state was in fact long controlled by Gülen and his followers (a charge, partisans argue, substantiated by the 2016 coup as well as the roles Gülenists played in prosecuting the Ergenekon trials). Ahmet Şık, who is now a member of parliament, has countered that the AKP had ultimately bested Gülen in a struggle for control over the deep state, leading to the creation of “a mafia sultanate” run by Erdogan himself.
The present-day debate over Turkey’s deep state reflects long-simmering tensions as to how the concept is understood. Since 1996, scholars or commentators have wrangled over the true definition of the deep state, as well as the particulars that marked its development during the republic’s history. There is a strong consensus, for example, that the Turkish deep state was heavily influenced by the creation of a secret NATO-led unit called Operation Gladio. As a clandestine force within the ranks of the Turkish state, Gladio was suspected of being an independently operated “stay-behind force” meant to combat accused communists and other supposed subversives in the case of a war with the Soviet Union. How instrumental this unit was in forming Turkey’s deep state, let alone how it evolved over time, has long remained somewhat elusive for researchers. Aggravating the debate over its significance is the virtual absence of verifiable government files pointing to the group’s existence or activities.
In lieu of hard evidence, press interviews with supposed witnesses and participants of this “counter-guerrilla” unit have supplied the bulk of the details. Testimony drawn from hearsay and dubious sources similarly bedeviled state-run investigations into the Susurluk and Ergenekon cases. It is now abundantly clear that prosecutors in the Ergenekon investigation fabricated evidence and relied heavily on the accounts of secret or questionable witnesses. Official government agencies in Turkey have provided no help in attempting to settle questions regarding the country’s deep state past. No formal declassification system exists in Turkey with respect to state records. Save for the archives run by the office of the prime minister, none of the country’s principal ministries allow for easy public access to their records.
Turkey’s internal deliberations over its supposed deep state at first inspired only a small handful of researchers to look for deep states in other countries. Scholars have used the concept as a jumping-off point for inquiries into a select number of cases, such as the imposition of military rule in Cold War Greece and the enduring influence of the army and bureaucracy over the Thai government. The protests that erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, followed by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, inspired several comparisons between Egypt’s deep state and that of Turkey. Osama bin Laden’s discovery in May 2011 led others to apply the deep state moniker to Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus, the ISI, due to the influence it exercises in Karachi. The first scholarly effort to internationalize the concept of the deep state came in an essay published in 2009 by Norwegian scholar Ola Tunander. In his reading of a wave of terrorist attacks staged by members of the Italian clandestine service during the height of the Cold War, Tunander argued that the deep state (regardless of where one might find it) is in fact one function of what Hans Morgenthau had earlier called the modern “dual state.” As an entity separate from the transparent, officially recognized “democratic” state, the deep state historically represented coalitions within the government that work to “veto” or “fine tune” policies related to national security. When elected governments threaten the deep state’s domestic or international interests, actors aligned with this coalition (which Tunander associates with the military, the clandestine service, the mafia, and far-right political activists) employ any means to reverse the state’s political course.
Tunander presented this view of the deep state before a conference held in Melbourne in 2006. The event, which was dedicated to the study of “parapolitics and shadow governance,” featured several well-regarded scholars of organized crime and various regional fields. With the exception of Tunander, none who participated utilized the term “deep state” within the context of their presentations. Some scholars favored similar conceptual terms, such as “parapolitics,” a more general term used to describe the institutional relationships between state actors and nefarious groups. Attending the conference was the scholar perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of “parapolitics,” Peter Dale Scott. Up until that point, Scott later explained, he had never heard of the deep state but was taken by Tunander’s analysis of Italy and its applicability elsewhere. “I was very gratified,” he told me in 2007, to realize “how closely, how very closely, my analysis of America fit Ola Tunander’s [thinking] of both America and other states.”
Through the Looking Glass: The Deep State Comes to America
As a literature professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Peter Dale Scott’s involvement in anti-war politics provided the first spark for his scholarship. His activism culminated in 1972 with the publication of his first book, The War Conspiracy, in which he argued that the U.S. intelligence community had helped drive Washington into intervening in Vietnam. His continued interest in the war’s origins soon spawned greater interest in the Kennedy assassination, a moment many activists pointed to as a turning point in America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Amid his research on Kennedy, Scott continued to publish, releasing an edited volume on Iran-Contra and the role cocaine traffickers played in the scandal. By the time University of California Press released Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, Oliver Stone’s cinematic treatment of the assassination had come and gone in theaters, stirring a groundswell of interest. Yet unlike most works on the controversy, Deep Politics expends little energy contesting what is revealed in the Zapruder film or debating the merits of the “magic bullet theory.” The assassination, as Scott would have it, opened windows into a variety of issues often kept hidden from the public’s view. The Warren Commission, as well as Congress’s re-examination of the investigation in 1976, revealed a treasure trove of insights into the CIA’s relationship with organized crime and its surveillance activities inside the United States. In probing the biographies and events associated with the killing, Scott points to a multitude of forces that sought to reverse Kennedy’s policies, deepen the Cold War, and further right-wing causes. While highlighting the importance of the clandestine forces that potentially benefited from the assassination, at no point does Deep Politics offer a concrete alternative version to what happened in Dealey Plaza. “You can’t solve the case,” Scott suggested to me in 2007, “but we can learn a lot more about America by studying the case.”
In lieu of discarding Oswald and unmasking JFK’s true killers, Deep Politics draws a much broader historical lesson from the assassination. Kennedy’s death, in Scott’s view, was not a random, external plot that hit the United States. It was more likely that it represented a “systemic adjustment” meant to override Kennedy’s impulses toward liberal reform at home and military de-escalation abroad. While putting no names to the conspiracy, Scott hypothesizes that a grand coalition of forces found within “public government, organized crime and private wealth” engineered and profited from the president’s death. Deep Politics muses that JFK’s killing was just one episode within a string of cases that resulted in the continuation of the Cold War and the defense of illiberal practices at home (cases which may have included Watergate and Iran-Contra). Yet for whatever “parapolitics” or “deep politics” that resided behind the Kennedy assassination and other controversial events, Scott offers no definitive ruling as to what to name this parallel source of authority.
His participation in the 2006 conference in Melbourne ultimately provided him with a more fitting diction for what he attempted to describe in Deep Politics. Though he had attended the event to discuss his work on drug trafficking and politics in Mexico, he found in Ola Tunander’s paper a novel framework that could be applied to a new research project he had begun. In The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire and the Future of America, Scott describes the American deep state as the potentially unwitting author and direct beneficiary of the 2001 attack. As in Deep Politics, he does not offer an alternative narrative for what happened on 9/11 (although he does countenance the work of David Ray Griffin and others who contend that the attacks were the product of a conspiracy beyond al-Qaeda). He instead spends much of the book charting the history of covert U.S. intervention abroad and how these policies helped give rise to Osama bin Laden. For Scott, the clandestine actors who helped lay the foundations of al-Qaeda were the same as those who helped drive and engineer U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War (specifically, elements of the U.S. intelligence community, the oil industry and organized crime). Washington’s reaction to 9/11 was similarly the product of the deep state’s historical development. In explaining the origins of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo, Scott argues that members of the Bush administration (principally Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) had favored similar policies dating back to the 1970s. Among the more jolting claims of The Road to 9/11 is the supposition that Cheney and Rumsfeld had helped craft “a continuity of government” plan under Reagan which called for the suspension of the Constitution and the opening of FEMA-run internment camps in the event of a national crisis. Elements of this plan, Scott hypothesizes, were instituted on or after 9/11.
Like Deep Politics, The Road to 9/11 was published as a peer-reviewed monograph by University of California Press. Both works are heavily footnoted. Although some government records provide the basis of his evidence, Scott largely relies upon the work of investigative journalists and other press sources as the main foundation of his analysis. To date, very few academic journals have published reviews of the book (of the few that exist, Ola Tunander offered the most glowing appraisal of the work). Academia’s ambivalent reception of the book did little to undermine the book’s exposure elsewhere. In February 2008, Scott made his first appearance on Alex Jones’s radio show, Infowars. By then, Alex Jones was just beginning to become a national phenomenon. Jones’s contention that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” had already given rise to a “truther” movement aimed at exposing the role of the CIA, the Mossad and international industrialists (principally those associated with the Bilderberg Group) in the attack. Scott’s findings connected immediately with this line of thinking. Thereafter he made further live appearances on Infowars and published articles on the show’s website. Other contributors to Alex Jones’s brand soon began to integrate the deep state into their own analysis of the Obama administration and the U.S. government at large. By 2016, Infowars prophesized that Donald Trump was the man most likely to defeat the deep state, which one commentator likened to a “satanic alliance” made up of bankers, “corporatists” and members of America’s military-industrial complex. The deep state did not become a fixture of Steve Bannon’s news site, Breitbart, until a month after election day. In a lengthy survey outlining what the author suggested would be a forthcoming struggle between “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump,” an anonymous contributor, Virgil (who some commentators assume to be Bannon), depicted the American deep state as a massive informal government comprising untold thousands of “bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats” committed to driving President-elect Trump from power. “It stretches across the whole of the federal government – indeed the entire country,” Virgil warned. “And it includes not only bureaucrats, but also a galaxy of contractors, profiteers, and others in the nominal private sector.”
It should be said that scholars other than Peter Dale Scott had toyed with ideas similar to the deep state within the American context. Tufts University Professor Michael Glennon proffered the term “double government” as early as 2014 in analyzing the lingering national security institutions that spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. The continuities between Bush and Obama, he argued, demonstrated the country had “moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system – a structure of double government – in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy.” Like Scott, Glennon traces the history of double government to the earliest stages of the Cold War and associates it with the expanded authority exercised by the military and the intelligence community during this era. Yet at no point does he paint America’s double government as wedded to the mafia or global corporations. Nor does he seize upon events such as the JFK assassination as evidence of the double government’s existence.
At this point, it is not likely that “double government” will evoke the same power and significance as the deep state. Since the spring of 2017, the deep state has become firmly entrenched within America’s political diction as the principal expression associated with parallel sources of power or clandestine politics. Efforts to define its substance have since varied from sincerely earnest endeavors to acts of pure ridicule. In the last year, the term has assumed an especially partisan connotation within the United States. At least four of President Trump’s most noted supporters have published book-length accounts of the deep state’s campaign to undermine his administration. Scott, meanwhile, has continued to write and give interviews on the subject, stating recently that he hopes both “Trump and the deep state will bring the other to behave more moderately”.
Looking Back to Look Forward
If the debates since February 2017 have achieved anything, it is to underscore the tensions that have long beset the deep state’s rhetorical history. Since it was first coined over 20 years ago, no precise definition for what it means has fully taken hold. Use of the phrase generally denotes belief in an informal or parallel government that exists to countermand legitimate, usually more democratic, institutions. Who constitutes this shadow government depends widely on whom you ask and where or when the discussion takes place. While the term originated with reference to the hold security institutions have over state and society (such as in Turkey), the list of deep state actors can include social groups accused of exploiting everyday citizens, like the mafia, “big business” or ideological extremists.
Up until February 2017, extreme political events were usually the catalysts for those who found the term fitting or helpful. In other words, “it’s the deep state” has served as a concise answer for those who question the true origins of any number of extraordinary, usually violent, episodes: Susurluk, the JFK assassination, 9/11, and so on. What is remarkable about the deep state’s arrival to America is that it has been used so pre-emptively. For pundits who now use the term seriously, the American deep state matters because it is capable of or intent upon unseating President Donald Trump and not necessarily because of what it has done before. Whether scholars will continue to engage in debate around the deep state remains to be seen. Given the partisan political radioactivity that has enveloped the concept, it is likely that most credible academics will think twice before trying to distill or prove the existence of a deep state.
What the term’s historical evolution also seems to suggest is the degree to which the hunt for shadow governments has always been elusive. There are certainly many historical cases that seem to point to secret plots and hidden cabals within governments. Efforts to document and contextualize such conspiracies are not always driven by wild-eyed paranoia or political agendas. In the case of the United States, charges of conspiracy within the government have prompted important public revelations. Popular skepticism regarding the JFK assassination, for example, did induce Congress to initiate a new investigation, leading to shocking official admissions regarding the CIA’s domestic surveillance efforts and its attempts to recruit elements of the American mafia. Whether such disclosures constitute evidence of sustained political cabals or shadow governments is often where discussions of the deep state become problematic. Proposing that an institutional deep state exists assumes that a variety of individuals and groups coordinate with one another (harmoniously or otherwise) in spite of the passage of years and changes to personnel and regimes. Making such a claim becomes even more fraught as one expands the list of deep state actors to include blanket categories such as the media, organized crime or “big oil.” It is one thing to argue that bureaucracies can resist change or believe that private citizens or groups can quietly influence policymakers. It is yet another to assume that such interests form distinct collectives that can transcend decades or generations without evolving or breaking down. To suppose that a deep state constitutes a permanent fixture within states can lead one to construe it as an actual organization with a consistent cast of individuals who meet and plot over long periods of time. The prospects for proving the existence of such a parallel state, in the form of government documents or independent testimony, is dubious at best. More often than not, the search for a deep state provides license for those seeking to conflate and marginalize political dissidents and opponents.
One lesson to be gleaned from the conceptual development of the deep state concerns the issue of transparency. At the heart of the deep state’s rhetorical appeal lies a distrust in government, especially governments (or parts thereof) that are believed to be less than forthcoming. The secretive or closed nature of many institutions regularly associated with the concept, such as militaries and intelligence services, readily amplifies fears of deeper conspiracies. One way to remedy the cause for such suspicions is to ensure that state archives are open to the public and are administered in predicable and transparent ways. In the case of the United States, mandating the release of all state documents after standard periods of time is one possible solution (as seen in Britain’s “twenty-year rule”). Such a system would eliminate much of the paperwork, expense and confusion that plague researchers and archivists who utilize the National Archive in College Park, Maryland. However, the likelihood that policymakers in Washington would be comfortable with allowing greater public access to state records is undoubtedly slim. Despite improvements under the Obama administration, the declassification of contemporary and historical documents remains uneven. In addition to official apprehensions about the release of previously held secrets, Congress has consistently slashed the budget of the National Archive (operating expenditures of the archive dropped 8 percent between 2008 and 2018). Any amelioration of the archive’s budget, not to mention improving public access, would be a subtle, but important step in restoring public confidence in state institutions and help combat the distrust that undergirds belief in the deep state.
Ryan Gingeras is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan and Middle East history. He is the author of four books, including Heroin, Organized Crime the Making of Modern Turkey. He has published on a wide variety of topics related to history and politics in such journals as Foreign Affairs, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Middle East Journal, Iranian Studies, Diplomatic History, Past & Present, and Journal of Contemporary European History.