The Deep State

President Obama says he didn’t know the U.S. government was tapping Angela Merkel, and you know, maybe he didn’t. I have come to wonder if we don’t have what amounts to a deep state within the outer state in the U.S.—a deep state consisting of our intelligence and security agencies, which are so vast and far-flung in their efforts that they themselves don’t fully know who’s in charge and what everyone else is doing. Maybe they’re bugging so many people it’s hardly news to them when they bug the chancellor of Germany. Maybe they mentioned it to the president, maybe not. Maybe they don’t know.

Mr Obama has gone from seeming like someone who doesn’t quite know what’s going on in his government to someone who doesn’t really want to. He has perfected a sense of surprise. He’s always finding out at just the moment you are, and feeling your indignation.

So maybe he didn’t know. Maybe our intelligence and security apparatus—so huge and full of money since 9/11, so self-encased and self-perpetuating—didn’t tell him.

Before we think about that, should we be tapping Merkel’s phone?

No, for a simple reason: Because it is wrong. She is our friend. She is our ally. She leads a great nation. As such—friend, ally, greatness—she deserves respect. It is not respectful or friendly to invade her privacy and spy on her in this way.

It also seems sort of nuts. Does the National Security Agency think Angela Merkel is planning to blow up Times Square? That would be just like her, wouldn’t it? Does the NSA want to get the mood of her government before the trade talks commence? Then they can do it the old-fashioned way, through old-fashioned human measures: “Hey, source in the foreign ministry, what are you hearing?”

America has been embarrassed by this. A president with more than adequate political smarts would never OK it. But our intelligence and security agencies? That vast edifice that always wants whatever new technologies are available and whatever new targets are around? Sure, they would do it. After all, it’s not their job to look after America’s reputation in the world, it’s just their job to get the goods and say they got them. Maybe they don’t get into sources and methods even with presidents.

Particularly obnoxious on this question are the American policy thinkers and journalists who, when asked about the Merkel taps, put on their world-weary professional wise-guy face, looking like tragic suburbanites who once read a John le Carré novel and can’t forget the shiver of existential dread, and say that everyone does it, governments spy, get with the program, this is the way the world works.

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Sorry, but tapping the private telephone line of one of your most important friends in the West is not how the world works, it’s how, once she finds out and the world finds out, it falls apart.

A president would, naturally and out of sheer diplomatic courtesy, tell his intelligence community to cut it out. What I’m wondering is: Do they cut it out? Who would know if they didn’t? Maybe they will choose to be courteous to the president, stop the tap and present Germany with evidence the tap has stopped. But maybe the deep state will think it doesn’t have to be pushed around by some joker who’ll be gone in a few years, to be replaced by another joker.

Yesterday on “Face the Nation,” I was on a panel that included Tom Johnson, Philip Shenon and Bob Woodward. We talked about the tendency of government agencies to cover up their mistakes, hide their internal agendas and lie. We’d been discussing Shenon’s impressive book on the JFK assassination and the making of the Warren Report. He documents the extent to which agencies and actors in those days withheld and even destroyed information that should have gone to the Warren Commission.

Anchor Bob Schieffer noted that the first things agencies under duress tend to do is “try to make sure they can’t be blamed for something. And, clearly, that is why the FBI and the CIA did not come clean with the Warren Commission.”

Woodward referred briefly to Watergate, and added: “I think there’s a theme here in all of this . . . that connects somewhat to what’s going on now.” He spoke of “the power of this secret world—CIA, FBI,” in the past, to know of or be involved in activities such as assassination plots against Fidel Castro, and not divulge those activities to a commission that was ostensibly searching for potential motives behind the Kennedy assassination.

Woodward brought it to the present. “We look now at what’s going on with all the NSA wiretapping and people saying, ‘Well, they didn’t know, or they did know.’ It clearly is much more extensive than people expected. You connect this with the drone strikes in Pakistan, and Yemen, which is our government conducting regular assassinations by air. You know, what’s—what’s going on here? Who is in control of it? And who can find out? You know, I think—it’s in the New York Times this morning that there is a review that Susan Rice, the National Security Adviser for Obama, has done on Mideast policy. They need to review this secret world and its power in their government because you run into this rat’s nest of concealment and lies time and time again, then and now.”

I agreed with Woodward. His stated concerns are very much my growing ones. And the pertinent questions are, as he says, “What’s going on here?” and “Who’s in control?”

What Woodward calls “this secret world” I have come increasingly to think of as the deep state—again, the vast, unfathomable and not fully accountable innards of the permanent U.S. intelligence and national-security apparatus. I have been wondering if it isn’t true that presidents change and directors change—you can keep changing the showbiz side, the names on the marquee—but the ways, needs, demands, imperatives, secrets and strategies of The Agencies stay pretty much the same, except for one thing: They always want more. The dynamic is always toward growth, toward more reach and more power. (We see some of this too in the permanent regulatory and administrative class in all the domestic agencies, EPA, HHS and IRS. You know why Lois Lerner more or less operated as if she had impunity? Because she more or less had impunity.) And it’s all gotten too big, too dark, too impenetrable. I’m not talking about “Homeland”-type darkness and shadows. It is more bureaucratic than that, more banal, less colorful, less dramatic. It is more James Clapper than James Angleton, more Vienna, Va., than mildly sinister McLean dinner party.

But it is actually the big thing our country should be talking about now, needs to be talking about and would be talking about if only our president had not decided, a few years ago, to blow up the U.S. health-care system.

And so now we’ll have to deal with that. It will demand all focus as we try to turn it around. But the NSA, its size, power and way of operating—that will have to be reckoned with.

Bonus anecdote. Once about 10 years ago an official who worked with a famous European leader told me of a conversation that had just taken place in the office. The leader met with his staff, who had decided to warn him that every day he’s just one comment away from disaster. “Anyone can hear you now,” they told him, “not just when you’re in public but when you’re in the car or at home on the phone. Hidden mics, taps, devices of all sorts—you can’t say anything.” It’s not only the media and all sorts of freelancers, they said, it’s other governments, perhaps our government, unseen forces and powers.

The leader looked crestfallen. This couldn’t be, he thought—this will require a whole new way of being alive.

But he knew they were telling the truth. Later, to an aide, he said, “I guess the only way to guarantee my privacy now is to sit crouched in the bathtub, with a big blanket over my head, talking to myself.”

Yes, the aide said, that’s about it.