“Trump, the Deep State, and the Risks of War:” Tikkun interviews Peter Dale Scott
Tikkun: There exists in the U.S. media a strong and persistent assumption that there has been an improper and outrageous manipulation of our voting system by by Russia (presumably that means Putin or people close to Putin who have been authorized by Putin to interfere with the outcome of our 2016 election) and that that was done either directly or indirectly in conjunction with President Trump.
PETER: There’s never been anything like this in American politics before. What’s interesting here is that the White House and the Beltway agencies like CIA and NSA are both powerful and now fighting each other (as in the Nixon era). And so there have been a number of headlines about “Trump versus the deep state.” We still don’t know whether there really was something indictable in “Russiagate,” the alleged contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The Trump people of course are denying this and blaming the controversy on the Beltway agencies, which they call “the deep state.” I’m going to call them the Beltway agencies because my idea of the deep state is much larger, and includes among other things the newspapers who are certainly part of this drama, because in the mainstream media Trump tends to be depicted as the problem. But with one new fact per week this could go on for the next four years without our learning the truth about those Russian contacts.
I have friends on both sides in the dispute. On one side are people like Glenn Greenwald who think that Trump is being unfairly vilified for having denounced the CIA’s proxy war in Syria. Michael Glennon wrote a book about the security state being the real power in this country; and he’s hoping that Trump will win this particular conflict because of Washington’s alarming and very undemocratic expansion of the powers of the security state.
Meanwhile there are other people who think that Trump doesn’t understand government, and they’re hoping that the Beltway agencies can curb Trump’s wilder promises. This group includes William Kristol, once at the center of what Hillary once referred to as a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
I myself am sort of in the middle: I hope both Trump and the deep state will bring the other to behave more moderately. So I’m not keen for either Trump or the intelligence agencies to win; I just think it’s better, as part of the larger checks-and-balances process of American politics, that they grapple with each other using the media.
And of course the media now includes Breitbart: the rise of Trump to power reflects a change in the composition of the major media. Breitbart is very much a Trump ally. Steve Bannon who managed Breitbart is now inside the White House. And there is among other things a fight that’s going on inside the Trump White House; because Bannon who represents the “let’s smash the old system let’s shrink the shrink the government so you can drown it in a bathtub” — and he’s in competition with other White House people who fear that Bannon is so much of a maverick that he will curse the Trump administration.
This fight in the White House has been reported as a fight between a Trump faction and a deep state faction. I see it as part of an old feud between two opposing factions within the deep state. As I write in the introduction to my up-dated book, The American Deep State, there has always been an anti-state, “America First” faction in the deep state, going back to an old conflict between the domestically oriented John Birch Society (and before them the National Association of Manufacturers), on the one hand, and the more globalist Council on Foreign Relations, on the other.
Bannon, Breitbart, and their financial backers the Mercer family represent this anti-globalist faction, which, like Putin, seeks to weaken and perhaps break up the EU. Bannon’s data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (principally owned by Robert Mercer) allegedly helped secure the pro-Brexit-vote in Britain.
So far it would appear that the anti-Bannon forces have a bit of the upper hand inside the White House; because when Flynn was fired, that was bad news for the Bannon faction.
Tikkun: Please tell our readers more about the deep state.
PETER: Well, let’s start with three Beltway agencies that are principal in it: the NSA who probably overheard all the conversations that are at stake here, the CIA which has got a long history of manipulating press leaks, and the FBI who are in charge of the Russiagate investigation . But I want to think on a larger level. I already mentioned that the media play a role in the deep state. What I’m now calling the “deep state media” includes the New York Times, the Washington Post and close behind them the LA Times and The Wall Street Journal. I’ve defined the deep state as “the wider interface in America between the public, the constitutionally established state, and the deep forces behind it of wealth, power, and violence outside the government.” In other words, the deep state is the sum of all the forces who are not authorized by the Constitution to exercise political power, and therefore are in the role of playing a significant but unauthorized political role, often in secret.
Tikkun: In your understanding, is the Pentagon part of your definition of the deep state or or not?
PETER: The Pentagon is not an independent player in the way it was under JFK and JBJ. In those days, backed by a powerful military-industrial complex, the Joint Chiefs resented and frequently challenged White House limitations on their actions. Today what the Pentagon does in a regular way has been brought more under civilian control.
But the military component of the U,S, economy and budget has grown and the old civilian component has withered. An increasing role is now played by hi-tech industries which are harder to define on this spectrum. This has created a new militarized economy in which hawks are found everywhere.
I argue in The American Deep State that 9/11 empowered Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their lobby PNAC (the Project for the New American Century) to implement their expansionist policies into Afghanistan and Iraq, with a momentum that Clinton and the Dems have since sustained in Libya and Syria.
But the Pentagon didn’t provide the impetus here; in fact Rumsfeld and Cheney had to clear out of the way a reluctant General Shelton, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Pressure was coming more from the oil industry (including Cheney’s old company Halliburton) who had their eyes set on creating a US military presence to overshadow and protect U.S. oil developments in Central Asia.
Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in turn promoted a lot of hawkish generals like Petraeus who pressured a reluctant Obama for the meaningless Afghanistan surge. And then in turn, Generals Mattis and Flynn, two of the hawk generals Obama had disagreements with and let go (they had wanted more U.S. military pressure on Iran) , were picked up by Trump. So hawks and doves have been switching sides on the Pentagon/White House seesaw..
Meanwhile the Pentagon expansionist hawks have been making use of a Pentagon element called JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, for dirty CIA-like covert operations in other countries,
Tikkun: Is there a set of interests that this deep state has that runs in a different direction than what our elected officials want.
PETER: Yes, but I want to say more clearly than I did in the first edition of my book,The American Deep State, that there are competing elements in the deep state. I’m not saying that there’s some s kind of secret team that in charge of everything, As I say in my book, the deep state “is not a structure but a system, as difficult to define, but also as real and powerful, as a weather system.” A vigorous deep state, like America’s, encompasses dynamic processes continuously generating new forces within it like the Internet — just as a weather system is not fixed but changes from day to day.
Tikkun: Are our major corporations part of what you are calling the deep state?
PETER: Well some corporations are, yes. The big oil companies are even in the subtitle of my book (Big Oil), because they conduct their own foreign policy. This fact is almost never written up, so you have to go to very specialized sources to find out what’s going on. But they have a very intimate relation with the CIA, often via the CIA’s “cleared contractor” firms like Booz Allen Hamilton.
And you can’t mention these corporations without mentioning the financial interests involved in them. It was relatively simple back in the ‘50s, when the Rockefellers were Big Oil, and they also controlled the Chase Manhattan Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations; and these interests all had a very close connection with the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. And Solomon and Cromwell partners John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were Secretary of State and head of CIA…. The easiest way to see what’s happening now is to remember how much clearer the deep state was back in the 50s.
The concept of a deep state is vital, and even the people who are using the term don’t understand how really relevant the deep state is in this, because of what is being left out. The debate is being carried on in the big media as if the media were not part of the deep state, but they are.
And what’s being left out altogether is the role of billionaires, and believe me that is very relevant here. The media are talking about Beltway agencies and too many people are only talking about them. Why aren’t more people talking about Robert Mercer or the Koch brothers or Karl Icahn?
These men have been restructuring US politics, because they all have a stake in shrinking the government and getting rid of regulations. And this squabble is fine for them. No matter who wins between Trump and the Beltway agencies, the billionaires are likely to come out even more powerful and unregulated.
Tikkun: But it does matter which side wins. The Trump Administration has been systematically going forward in its goal of dramatically shrinking government while most of the forces that you’ve identified as “the deep state” oppose this direction. And that shrinking will hit the poor and middle income Americans hardest. That is morally outrageous.
PETER: We have to recognize there are two factions of the billionaires. You also have the people like Bill Gates the head of Microsoft (the richest of all) who are in favor of regulation and whose businesses do better in a well-regulated society.
Tikkun: That’s why it’s difficult to say that “the deep state is a useful category when it turns out that deep state is on both sides of this issue.
PETER: Well the deep state isn’t a way of solving a mystery. The deep state is a way of keeping our minds enlarged to think of the big picture here. And now there is a great deal of money involved in politics on both sides, a lot of it from super-billionaires making a political investment for profit. They dominate as never before: by 2007 the top one percent in America owned 35 percent of America’s total wealth.
This means that traditional politics have changed. The money used to be channeled through the political parties; but now both of them have significantly lost influence because their funding is no longer so dominant. The Republican Party in particular has lost control over its primaries because they are being outbid by people like the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer who detest the party establishment.
The fund controlled by the Koch brothers announced in 2015 that it would spend $889 million leading up to the 2016 campaign — more than double the nearly $400 million the Republican National Committee spent on the 2012 election. And Mercer in particular, whose firm was once investigated for tax evasion, gave over $22 million to right-wing candidates and PACs in the last campaign
Mercer was also backing Bannon and Breitbart. These billionaires are restructuring the way in which politics is played. It’s almost as if they have rebuilt a new stage for American politics, on which Trump and the quote deep state that they talk about in the papers are just actors.
Tikkun: Now let’s get to the underlying issue in regard to this. We know that Hillary and the section of the Democratic Party that that backed her were moving towards fulfilling what she had done as Secretary of State: to take actions that confronted Russia and challenging Russia and possibly leading us even towards war with Russia
And that appears to be the opposite of what Trump is trying to do. Trump was saying I don’t want to war with Russia while Hillary was saying we’ve got to confront Russia as she did when she was a secretary of state. What’s more, we are now learning that when Gorbachev agreed to let the Berlin wall come down and free Eastern European countries from Soviet domination he had a deal with the United States and in which the U.S. assured him that we would not expand NATO towards Russia. But then Bill Clinton expanded NATO and put it right at the Russian’s door so they are feeling understandably aggrieved with those in the U.S. who have been supporting that path and making a big deal out of Russia’s desire to control the Ukraine.
PETER: I agree with you. As I say in The American Deep State, Gorbachev has repeatedly charged that “the Americans promised that NATO wouldn’t move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War.” And Jack Matlock,
U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, has also said that the West gave a “clear commitment” not to expand. I totally agree and I would like to come back to Hillary, and the politics Hillary’s people were playing in Ukraine. In out post-9/11 era of U.S. expansionism, we now have a Russiagate scandal because Trump was elected, but if Hillary had been elected then we might have had to think about a “Ukrainegate scandal,” because some Ukrainians were playing politics with the Hillary campaign to promote her, just as it may be true that Russians were promoting Trump.
Tikkun: We at Tikkun suspect that part of the reason why the parts of the media that supported Hillary and other forces that supported Hillary, and the Democratic Party as a whole, have been so insistent on making this the issue rather than for example all the disastrous things that Trump is doing to healthcare to immigration and so forth (e.g. the New York Times having headlines every day focused on the supposition that Trump stole the election through his covert alliance with Russia) is that they will not accept the their own responsibility for losing the 2016 election. Instead of asking what kind of fundamental change must the liberal and progressive forces make in order to speak to the needs of sections of the American public they haven’t been speaking to for a long time, they instead focus on this Russian/Trump connection and thereby avoid having to do any reconstruction of liberal and progressive politics that have been losing ground for the past thirty years at least.
PETER: I think there is a lot of merit to that. My hesitation in fully endorsing it is that, as I have been saying, we don’t know what exactly the FBI has been investigating about Russiagate. Maybe it is very sinister; but maybe you’re right and it is being blown up beyond what it really is. But we can’t say that with confidence until we know what Russiagate is about.
David Talbot has compared Russiagate with Watergate which was another deep event like this one. And one striking analogy is that although Nixon had to resign because of what he did in the cover-up, we never really found out he purpose of that original break-in. The same thing might happen to Trump, although we don’t at this stage really know what the relations between the Russians and the Trump campaign were either.
We haven’t mentioned the sanctions against Russia yet but there are obviously central to this whole matter. We’re told Flynn was fired because he was discussing the sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But I consider the imposition of sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea to have been very dubious. You couldn’t expect Russia to accept the risk that its largest port on the Black Sea might be taken over by NATO. For over a century until 1954, Crimea was part of Russia. According to the last census of 2001, it was still ethnically 58 percent Russian, and only 24 percent Ukrainian. And after Ukraine’s independence, disregard of the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens became more and more flagrant.
There’s a lot of right and wrong on both sides when we come to Ukraine. But there was the hope for people like me that maybe Trump would start off on a fresh step and just — as you say — not be interested in war with Russia and not even be interested in sanctions against Russia. But lifting the sanctions against Russia might serve to weaken bonds between the US and the EU. Ironically one thing the Trump and Putin have in common is they both don’t want a strong European Union, they want a divided Europe which will be easier for both of them to dominate.
And one of the things I really want to work in here is that Robert Mercer, invested a lot of money in Cambridge Analytica; and it’s just being revealed in The Guardian that Cambridge Analytical was a very major factor in persuading Britons to vote for BREXIT. In other words, Robert Mercer interests played the role that Putin is accused of, of intervening in another nation’s politics. And of course the CIA has interfered in politics in many countries.
It seems that intervening in the politics of other nations is becoming a normal form of activity now. But if when it comes to Trump and Russiagate there was something criminal done, that is I think still an open question. We just don’t know.
Tikkun: What’s at stake here for those of us who don’t have any other dogs in the fight between factions of the government and the Deep State is our desire to avoid unintentionally falling into a nuclear war?
PETER: Right! That’s one of the big things at stake. And the domestic aspect of this is the state of emergency proclaimed after 9/11, which has now effectively shut down major anti-war and anti-nuclear protests. It allows the NSA to survey our phone calls or emails, and under it a U.S. Army Brigade Combat Team is now permanently (and some would say illegally) deployed in the U.S., to deal with any antiwar or antinuclear demonstration that might get out of hand.
The international issue you’re talking about — of nuclear war – goes hand in hand with a domestic issue: the militarization of homeland security since the implementation of Continuity of Government on 9/11. Trump as an outsider could have been the president to deal with this problem. But with this convenient diversion about “Trump vs. the deep state.” the Cheney legacy so far remains unchallenged by either Trump or the Democrats.
The only hope I can see in this fight between Trump and the deep state is the possibility that this will create what I have called (following Leonard Cohen) the crack where “the light gets in “
I mean that with the media talking this way about the deep state (even though they never mention their own role in the deep state) the public may become more aware of the deep state and even begin to think about what the deep state did on 9/11.
I would say that both the deep state and also the public state have been changed by the increasing importance of the Internet. The Internet is now central to how politics is being fought, both illegally (through hacking) and also by manipulation of individual voters through algorithms (as with Cambridge Analytica and Brexit).
And on the side of truth and there are people like Edward Snowden who know how to use the Internet. What Edward Snowden released ended up in the newspapers. But his strategy was to use the internet to make this happen. And Edward Snowden’s achievement is very relevant to the whole Russiagate thing, which also is being affected by developments on the Internet.
So don’t underestimate Tikkun’s significance here. The Internet helps give added clout to people like those connected to Tikkun who are both writers and activists, and who will go where the deep state media won’t.
Tikkun: We still worry about the risk of nuclear war with Trump in power.
PETER: There are good reasons to. Some fear that Trump is so impetuous and scornful of expertise that he may initiate some action overseas (like the response to alleged sarin bombing in Syria) that could easily escalate. Others, like Naomi Klein, fear that he may deliberately and with foresight launch some dangerous shock event abroad, in order to facilitate a crackdown on domestic dissent and opposition.
I could be wrong, but still cherish the hope that, as he becomes more and more mired in the Washington swamp he cannot drain, he will be more likely to vent his frustration in tweets than in unilateral dangerous escapades.
Tikkun: Yet much of the attack on Trump by the Deep State is because of his failure to stand strong against Russia. The message that they are giving to the American public is: “Russia is evil Russia is bad. Russia keeps doing a bad things like interfering in our country’s elections. And that might eventually push Trump, who started out wanting to assume Americans that he would not lead us into another war, to feel that in order to show he is really strong that he must turn to challenge Russia by challenging our policy towar Syria to to essentially confront Russia there.
PETER: I agree. Both the Trump-Mattis team and the traditional Washington establishment opposed to Trump seem equally bent on asserting US dominance in reckless ways. For example, Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to the UN, told CBS that there are “no good options” for a US response to North Korea’s ICBM test. He thus overlooks the obvious one that has been suggested by China as a quid quo quo for stopping these destabilizing missile tests: namely, that the US and South Korea stop their aggressive war games that have repeatedly violated North Korean space. So I’m not sure Hillary and Trump would be far apart in this respect.
What can we do about this? I don’t think old methods, like mass rallies or Occupy, are likely to have any significant influence. But, as I have been saying in my books for a decade, I think we can take heart from the success of the non-violent Solidarity movement in Poland, which was eventually able to oust a Soviet-backed dictatorship.
They did so, not by just taking to the streets, but by organizing in their workplaces ten million gainfully employed workers at all levels of society. These people constituted one third of the total working-age population of Poland! They included the religious, the irreligious, and the anti-religious, but the key to the success was a three-way coalition between workers, intellectuals, and the church.
Obviously America at present is nowhere close to the conditions for such revolutionary change. But our society is one with immense organizational resources. And insofar as Washington departs significantly from its past slow progress towards arms control, measures to control global warming, etc., I would hope similar coalitions for sanity will emerge in American workplaces as well.
Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is a poet, writer, researcher, and anti-war activist. His chief political books include Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993), The Road to 9/11 (2007), The American Deep State (2014, 2017), and Dallas ’63 (2015). In 2002 he received the Lannan Poetry Award. His website is http://www.peterdalescott.net.
(Cover image courtesy of the CIA.)