The "Deep State" Theory, Explained

NSA headquarters
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. Wikimedia Commons

The seed for many tantalizing conspiracy theories, the term “deep state” in the United States implies the existence of a premeditated effort by certain federal government employees or other persons to secretly manipulate or control the government without regard for the policies of Congress or the President of the United States.

Origin and History of the Deep State

The concept of a deep state — also called a “state within a state” or a “shadow government” – was first used in reference to political conditions in countries like Turkey and post-Soviet Russia.

During the 1950s, an influential anti-democratic coalition within the Turkish political system called the “derin devlet” – literally the “deep state” — allegedly dedicated itself to ousting communists from the new Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Ataturk after World War I. Made up of elements within the Turkish military, security, and judiciary branches, the derin devlet worked to turn the Turkish people against its enemies by staging “false flag” attacks and planned riots. Ultimately, the derin devlet was blamed for the deaths of thousands of people.

In the 1970s, former high-ranking officials of the Soviet Union, after defecting to the West, publically stated that the Soviet political police – the KGB – had operated as a deep state secretly attempting to control the Communist Party and ultimately, the Soviet government.

In a 2006 symposium, Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former general in the Communist Romania secret police who defected to the United States in 1978, stated, "In the Soviet Union, the KGB was a state within a state.”

Pacepa went on to claim, “Now former KGB officers are running the state. They have custody of the country’s 6,000 nuclear weapons, entrusted to the KGB in the 1950s, and they now also manage the strategic oil industry renationalized by Putin.”

The Deep State Theory in the United States

In 2014, former congressional aide Mike Lofgren alleged the existence of a different type of deep state operating within the United States government in his essay titled “Anatomy of the Deep State.”

Instead of a group comprised exclusively of government entities, Lofgren calls the deep state in the United States “a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.” The Deep State, wrote Lofgren, is not “a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. It is not a tight-knit group and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector.”

In some ways, Lofgren’s description of a deep state in the United States echoes parts of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, in which he warned future presidents to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

President Trump Alleges a Deep State Opposes Him

Following the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump and his supporters suggested that certain unnamed executive branch officials and intelligence officers were secretly operating as a deep state to block his policies and legislative agenda by leaking information considered critical of him.

President Trump, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, along with ultra-conservative news outlets like Breitbart News claimed that Former President Obama was orchestrating a deep state attack against the Trump administration. The allegation apparently grew out of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of his telephone during the 2016 election campaign.

Current and former intelligence officials remain divided on the question of the existence of a deep state secretly working to derail the Trump administration. 

In a June 5, 2017 article published in The Hill Magazine, retired veteran CIA field operations agent Gene Coyle stated that while he doubted the existence of “hordes of government officials” operating as an anti-Trump deep state, he did believe the Trump administration was justified in complaining about the number of leaks being reported by news organizations.

“If you are that appalled at the actions of an administration, you should quit, hold a press conference and publicly state your objections,” said Coyle. “You can’t run an executive branch if more and more people think, ‘I don’t like the policies of this president, therefore I will leak information to make him look bad.’”

Other intelligence experts argued that individuals or small groups of individuals leaking information critical of a presidential administration lack the organizational coordination and depth of deep states such as those that existed in Turkey or the former Soviet Union.

The Arrest of Reality Winner 

On June 3, 2017, a third-party contractor working for the National Security Agency (NSA) was arrested on charges of violating the Espionage Act by leaking a top-secret document related to the possible involvement of the Russian government in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to an unnamed news organization.

When questioned by the FBI on June 10, 2017, the woman, 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, “admitted intentionally identifying and printing the classified intelligence reporting at issue despite not having a ‘need to know,’ and with the knowledge that the intelligence report was classified,” according to the FBI affidavit.

According to the Justice Department, Winner “further acknowledged that she was aware of the contents of the intelligence reporting and that she knew the contents of the reporting could be used to the injury of the United States and to the advantage of a foreign nation.”

The arrest of Winner represented the first confirmed case of an attempt by a current government employee to discredit the Trump administration. As a result, many conservatives have been quick to use the case to bolster their arguments of a so-called "deep state" within the United States government. While it's true that Winner had publicly expressed anti-Trump sentiments both to co-workers and on social media, her actions in no way prove the existence of an organized deep state effort to discredit the Trump administration.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The "Deep State" Theory, Explained." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). The "Deep State" Theory, Explained. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The "Deep State" Theory, Explained." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).