One can almost hear the agitprop machinery grinding its gears in an attempt to both mask and denounce the simple concept of “Deep State”. It reminds me of what they tried to do with “naked short selling” until in 2008, when further obfuscation became impossible because their financial system melted around them and they had to pass emergency regulations to save it from the thing that months earlier they had been denying existed. They are trying the same thing with the concept of “Deep State” now, which is somewhat comical, because I had no idea that there was anyone left in America who didn’t understand that there is a Deep State. It is like conversing with one of those fellows whose toupee has come loose and who does not realize it: one does not know whether to look away or to hold his eyes and keep talking, hoping that he wakes up and fixes it without one having to embarrass him.
It is really quite simple to explain. The way the various departments and agencies of our federal government work is that there is the organization itself, and then there is the political oversight of the organization. In some countries they would call figures who provide such political oversight, “commissars”. In our country, we call them, “political appointees”.
There is nothing wrong with it: it is how our government should work. For example, when a new president is elected, there are about 4,000 positions across the federal government that the new president appoints. Over the Army, for example, there is a Secretary of the Army, and then a number of Assistant Secretaries. They are not taking civilians and suddenly making them Generals. The political appointees are the class that gets established over the Generals to make sure that the organization (in this case, the United States Army) has proper oversight from the elected President, and is shaped and led in a way that is consistent with that President’s policies.
For example, if the President says that LGBTQ soldiers should be in a position of equality within the Army, or that combat roles should be open to women, then it is the political appointees over the Army that make sure that policy is implemented. If the President wants to de-emphasize treating HIV in Africa, and instead shift to malaria-prevention, the political appointees at USAID (or CFDC?) make that so.
This is to be applauded. it is how we citizens control our government: our priorities and beliefs shape which candidate we elect, and then that candidate gets to make these 4,000 appointments so that the activities of the government reflect those priorities and desires of the citizenry. That is how it worked for over two centuries.
Here is where it went wrong. For over 80% of the history of the USA, there was a taboo that kept people from serving as political appointees, then afterwards, taking jobs in the departments and agencies they had just been overseeing. It was considered unseemly, and merely good institutional design to have that taboo. Appointees were expected to serve out their president, and when the party in power changed, to move into another line of work, in business or academia or private practice. Perhaps when their party came back into power they might take another turn in public service, and accept another position as a political appointee, but they were not supposed to go back into the bureaucracy they had just been overseeing. I am not sure there was ever a formal rule against it, yet all understood the institutional design imperatives that made the taboo valuable.
About 30-40 year ago that taboo dissolved. It became normal for political appointees to serve their time then, when the party in power changed, to melt back down into the bureaucracy. I am not sure which party broke the taboo first, but it would not surprise me if it was the Republicans (but I emphasize, I do not know that).
The affect this has had on our federal government cannot be overstated. It has been politicized from the top down, so that the political class is not just providing oversight of the department brass, but they have gone on to melt-in and become the department brass. This is horrific institutional design and generates pernicious organizational dynamics.
Imagine working in a corporation such as Intel. At some point members of both the Hatfields and McCoys get hired into the top echelon of management. Before long, they are hiring more of their own from without. They are also finding and promoting sympathizers from within. Eventually people are signalling within the organization which team holds their alliance, hoping that they get the tap from the right clan and their own promotions get accelerated.
To the person showing up for work at Intel just wanting to design a new chip, this is a terrible development. Every hire gets questioned and every promotion gets second-guessed. Maybe it seems like it does not make sense to just stick to one’s knitting and do the best job one can do designing chips. Maybe it is better to focus on sending the right signals to the right clan executives above you, to woo the right executives with your potential loyalty….
How would the chip-making excellence of Intel fare under such a situation? Would it improve? Or would it slowly turn into an organization wrapped around its axle, consumed with clan in-fighting and machinations, and seeing its prowess and effectiveness erode through the years?
Replace “Intel” with the “United Sates Government”, replace “Hatfields and McCoys” with “Republicans and Democrats”, and you have a good description of what has happened to our federal government over the last 30-40 years.
The shame of it all is that this is well understood by the rank-and-file and “the Brass”, or at least “the Brass” who got there by being great rank-and-file employees. They see this going on. They see their own brass getting politiiczed from the top down. They see their own opportunities for advancement thwarted, and also, the increasingly politicize demands placed on them. They are good men and women who joined the government with an eye towards serving their county, and they see what has happened over the span of not much more than one good career. And many if not most of them are sickened by it.
How many are there? I do not know. My sense (and I really have only the most blurry idea) is that it may not be more than a couple-few hundred. Yet they have seized the commanding heights of the government, and in particular, the Department of Justice. The damage this has done far exceeds the number of people involved.
I forget now if I have ever made this story public, but sometime in the early days of my fight with the Wall Street, not more than a year into what I thought was a small skirmish with a few bad actors, I received a phone call one day in my office. My assistant came running into my office, saying, “There is a United States Attorney from the Department of Justice on the phone for you!”
No kidding, I leapt to my feet, stood at attention, and picked up the phone for what could not ahve been longer than a five minute call.
“Hello Patrick, this is Ken Breen,” said the voice on the other end. “I am a United States Attorney with the Department of Justice.”
“Hello, this is P-P-Patrick Byrne,” I stammered.
“Patrick, I want you to know that it is perfectly legal that I am calling you now. I have resigned from the Department of Justice, today is my last day, I have cleaned out my desk and put my belongings in a box, and I am about to walk out the door with that box. Tomorrow I start a new job at __________,” he said, naming one of the white shoe Wall Street law firms (I forget which). “This is the last phone call I am making from my office before I walk out the door.”
I laugh at the memory now: I really stood there at attention, stuttering, “Hello S-S-S-Sir!” I stammered out. “How can I help you?”
“Patrick, I want you to know that you have a number of people within the Department of Justice watching you.” My heart sank until he continued, “There are 30-40 people here watching this thing you are doing with Wall Street, and cheering you on. Keep it up.” He continued by telling me where he thought I was wasting time, where from my public comments they saw I had been going down rabbit hole that led nowhere, and importantly, a couple things he thought I had overlooked (I forget what they were now, but it may have been the first time I heard the expression “ex-clearing”).
He went on for a couple of minutes telling me such things, and encouraging my efforts. As he wound up what he had called to tell me, and came to a stop, I finally found the nerve to ask him something that was befuddling me. I said, “Sir, I am flattered, and please pass my thanks to your colleagues. But I need to ask you …. You’re a United States Attorney. Why are you telling me this?”
His reply broke my heart, and will haunt me to my dying day. “Oh Patrick, you have no idea how politicized the environment is here in the Department within which prosecution decisions get made.”
Stunned, I thanked him, we said our goodbyes, and hung up. Even though a year or two later he came through Utah and we had dinner, to this day I do not remember from which party Mr. Breen hailed. Actually, I remember him as the kind of man who was not from a party, but was a rule-of-law kind of guy.
It should not matter to you which party he was from, either. If you are like me, that story will give you a lump in the back of your throat. Not one of pride, but one of sadness. Individually these people are heroes, but collectively, they know something has gone haywire in the system within which they operate. Both the rank-and-file, and the brass who got there by working their way up rather than being appointed to the top and melting down, know it exists and complain about it privately. They do so not just from the perspective of their own thwarted career ambitions, but from the perspective of people who care about their organizations’ missions, and see the pernicious consequences of this practice.
I do not know the ratios between the parties, but I sense it is about even. Until recently, only the Department of Defense was immune to it, but in recent years the taboo has crumbed there, too, so it is finally happening in the Pentagon as well, I am told. Somewhere along the way, I think it congealed into a glob that transcends party affiliation, a glob that sees itself as accountable to no one, and serves interests that are not your and mine.
That is the Deep State. It is not some magical entity of unknown provenance, nor is it a vague conspiracy theory akin to the Illuminati. it is just political science. For 200 years our federal government worked because a certain taboo was respected by both parties. Then both parties began to ignore it, and eventually, our federal government became prime real estate within which both parties set up shop.
What makes me most sad about telling this story is that I know some people who can be described as I have here, in the sense that they were political appointees who, in time, took jobs within the bureaucracies from which they originally sprang. They are wonderful men and women who have served their country for decades. It is not that they are bad people. The ones I know, the ones who have been political appointees, and then who have returned to run operations within their respective bureaucracies, are fine people, knowledgeable people, and great Americans. From both parties.
Yet it is surely horrible institutional design to have this occurring. It has politicized precisely the parts of government that should not be politicized, because they are the greatest prizes. There was a reason our country ran for 200 years with a taboo against this practice. There is a reason that the parties eventually set their sights on capturing these heights. And their reason for wanting to do so is precisely the reason that you, Citizen, should be opposed to it happening.
Or rather, the reason you should be dismayed that it has happened.