With Intelligence Leaks, The 'Deep State' Resurfaces The term "deep state" has come back into vogue after a gush of leaks from the intelligence community. Journalist Marc Ambinder explains what it means to NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

With Intelligence Leaks, The 'Deep State' Resurfaces

With Intelligence Leaks, The 'Deep State' Resurfaces

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The term "deep state" has come back into vogue after a gush of leaks from the intelligence community. Journalist Marc Ambinder explains what it means to NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.


This past week, an old term has migrated from spy novels to cable news. The deep state theory is enjoying a new popularity after leaked communications between national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia's ambassador to the U.S. precipitated Flynn's resignation. Marc Ambinder is a longtime journalist who's covered both the White House and national security. He's the co-author of a book called "Deep State." He joins us now from Los Angeles via Skype.

Thanks for being with us.

MARC AMBINDER: Good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you define the deep state?

AMBINDER: Well, I try to define it simply - maybe the national security and intelligence bureaucracy, the secret-keepers in the United States, people who have security clearances, who have spent 10 to 20 to 30 years working in and around secrets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when we're hearing about this term this week to do with Michael Flynn, what do we - what are people making that connection with potentially a huge group of people and this particular case?

AMBINDER: They're essentially alleging that the national security state, this metastate that exists and, again, traffics totally in secret - used its collective power in order to bring down a duly chosen national security adviser because they disagreed with him or they disagreed with his president or they disagreed with his policies. It is a term of derision, a term that suggests people are using their power for ill-begotten ends. And that, if true, sets up a crisis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is it in your view? I mean, what people are saying is that possibly this deep state, these entrenched intelligence and security apparatus, is basically trying to commit some sort of soft coup, that they are basically trying to at least compromise a legitimately elected leader through his national security adviser. Do you think that's what's going on?

AMBINDER: I don't. The type of information that we're talking about here is information that circulates mostly among policymakers in the former administration, Obama's administration, and in the current administration. The number of actual members of the, quote, unquote, "deep state" who have access to the raw FISA intercepts of a conversation between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States is very, very small. It just seems to me that a lot of this information is coming from people who are inside Trump's own administration.

It does not strike me as a conspiracy of the deep state elite. But again, posing it as a conspiracy is a very easy way to delegitimize what we now know to be true, which was that the president deliberately withheld information from his vice president once he learned about it, information that would have revealed his vice president to have gone out and said something untrue in public. That's a very, very important piece of information that the public ought to have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk a little bit about the reaction to this idea of the deep state. There have always been concerns expressed - by the left primarily - about the vast powers acquired by the U.S. government security apparatus. I'm thinking here about the Edward Snowden case and others. Here, though, we're seeing the leakers being celebrated by liberals. Can you have it both ways, in your view?

AMBINDER: You shouldn't have it both ways. There are always consequences for anything. And indiscriminate leaking of classified information is going to have significant consequences. And if, indeed, the intelligence bureaucracy is, for example, withholding information from President Trump and people are leaking that fact, there's going to be blowback. We want the intelligence community - we want the deep state and the president to get along on some level. It is, in one sense, good to have them as a check on executive power because they are very powerful.

But Donald Trump is the president, and he has (inaudible) significant degree of power. The deep state - the intelligence bureaucracy, the national security apparatus - has to get along with him. They have to be able to provide him with information that lets him make better decisions. So we really are dealing with a very sharp double-edged sword here, two different institutions with enormous power sharing power over us. We want them to cooperate for our benefit. We don't want them to be at war with each other. That does not help the American people. It certainly doesn't further the cause of national security.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marc Ambinder - his book is called the "Deep State: Inside The Government Secrecy Industry" (ph).

Thanks so much for being with us.

AMBINDER: You're welcome.

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