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How the Powers That Be Maintain the “Deep State”: An Interview With Mike Lofgren

Author Mike Lofgren describes how elements of the US government and financial and industry elites maintain power.

The US Capitol building. "Membership in the deep state in Congress boils down to the leadership and a handful of Defense and Intelligence Committee members," says Mike Lofgren. (Photo: Brian Hoffsis / Flickr)

Part of the Series

Retired congressional staffer Mike Lofgren illuminates the shadowy influencers behind US politics in his incriminating new book, The Deep State. Explore in detail the involvement of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the military-industrial complex in the decisions that will shape the future of the United States. Get a copy of this book by making a donation to Truthout today!

In The Deep State, author Mike Lofgren, whose 2011 commentary, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” remains the most-read article at, connects the dots between apparently disparate aspects of our current dystopia. “The deep state,” argues Lofgren is “the red thread” linking the “ideological syndrome” of McMansions; DC’s culture of careerist strivers; the financialization, deindustrialization and ultimate mutation of the US economy into “a casino with a tilted wheel”; the burgeoning of government secrecy even as individual privacy has been demolished; the consistency and persistence of unpopular policies regardless of which party wins elections; militarized foreign policy, “defense” and “security” establishments that thrive on failure and enjoy essentially unlimited funding whatever nostrums about the national debt and the necessity for austerity are being peddled for every other function of government; the prevalence of incompetence and ineptitude in government response to crises; unequal justice, including impunity for the wealthy and corporations, a corrupt Supreme Court and a strikingly punitive criminal legal system for ordinary people; legislative gridlock; perpetual war; political extremism and other ruinous epiphenomena.

Lofgren agreed to speak with retired Truthout editor Leslie Thatcher about his new book on January 27. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Leslie Thatcher: Thanks so much, Mike, for talking with Truthout. First off, what do you want readers to know about your new book? Why should they read it?

Mike Lofgren: I think they should read it because we get a lot of pseudo-information from corporate media that focuses very intently on the horse race between the two parties to the exclusion of more fundamental issues. Meanwhile, regardless of who is elected, government policy regarding issues like economic regulation or national security doesn’t change very much. I wasn’t totally satisfied that my first book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, answered the question, “What is it that happened to the US in the last 30 to 40 years such that both parties seem to enact the same policies on big things like militarism, Wall Street, or trade?” While there are considerable differences between the parties on cultural and identity issues, there is very littledifference in the big money issues, which is what a certain class of people who run the country are really interested in and that is what I try to explain.

You describe the “deep state” as the iceberg beneath the visible tip of the official US government “that is theoretically controllable via elections.” How does it function and what are its main components?

It’s a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry effectively able to govern the US without reference to the consent of the governed. Its nodes are the national security agencies of government, Treasury, the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court (whose dealings are so mysterious not even most members of Congress know what the court is doing).

Mike Lofgren. (Photo: Alisa Lofgren)Mike Lofgren. (Photo: Alisa Lofgren)Most congresspeople just vote according to what their party leadership tells them. Membership in the deep state in Congress boils down to the leadership and a handful of Defense and Intelligence Committee members. The private part of the deep state is the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about in 1961. There is also Wall Street and its symbiotic relationship with the Treasury and its regulatory agencies, like the SEC [Security and Exchange Commission]. People like Hank Paulson, who worked for [George W.] Bush, or Tim Geithner, who worked for Obama, are essentially interchangeable: Their worldview is much the same despite being of different political parties.

And then, of course, you have Silicon Valley – necessary for the technology which totally enables the NSA [National Security Agency] (which informants have told me couldn’t do its job without that technology). Silicon Valley is also significant as an enormous center of new wealth. You also see their self-glorifying statements about being innovative disruptors. They certainly are disrupting the economy. There is little evidence that technology will do anything in a macroeconomic sense other than concentrating wealth even further so that we’re left with CEOs on top and everyone else in the gig economy, like contractors for Uber.

How did you personally become aware of the deep state and what is the explanatory power of its existence for understanding current affairs?

I became aware that there were forces at work in the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq that were bigger than the government and were operating on their own compass heading. We have a supposedly free press, but when you saw people like Phil Donahue and Ashley Banfield fired or demoted for being critical of invasion, you have to wonder. I’m pretty sure nobody in the White House picked up the phone and asked somebody at NBC to fire those folks, but the NBC executives were sufficiently conditioned to perform a service to the government by firing those folks and creating the propaganda for the war.

In the correspondence leading up to this interview, you mentioned “developments in the past six months that have surprised even me, and not in a good way.” Can you briefly outline what these are and their pertinence to The Deep State’s premise?

I should correct that: They’ve surprised me in a mixed way. Certainly, six months ago I would not have imagined Donald Trump had as much staying power as he’s demonstrated. Trump in many ways represents the culmination of the deep state. He’s a plutocrat who’s used the laws, such as business bankruptcy procedures, for his own gain and yet in a way he is frightening people in the deep state because he is so far out, that he’s upsetting their business model. The standard model is for billionaires to dictate the candidates’ positions on free trade, austerity etc. On the upside: He is scaring the daylights out of members of the deep state. On the downside: He’s moving away from the current model of corporate oligarchy with a façade of free elections. Instead, he’s using all the populist themes developed by the Republican Party in the past to keep their base happy, but he’s actually making promises to act on them and moving towards out-and-out fascism.

On the other hand, you have the [Bernie] Sanders campaign also scaring the daylights out of Democrats. He doesn’t have to go to David Geffen’s house or to Wall Street with his hat in his hand or fundraise among the glitterati. The last time I looked, his average donation was reported as less than $30. That upsets the whole notion of fundraising described by a New York Times report that half of all political donations came from just 158 families. Unfortunately, that’s the business model we’ve got post Citizens United. The Democrat pooh-bahs are clearly upset and Michael Bloomberg has said he would jump into the race only if Sanders won in the Democratic primaries: that tells me who his friend is and who his enemy is.

Obama appeared to have a similar fundraising model, but it was clear he was bought off in summer 2008 when he voted in favor of the FISA Amendments Act [a bill to indemnify the telecommunications companies over participation in illegal surveillance] that he previously had said he would filibuster. By then he had already taken on John Brennan as a foreign policy adviser. The extraordinary loyalty and indulgence Obama has shown Brennan was demonstrated in his waiting until it was politically possible to get Brennan appointed CIA director, after which he then promptly embarrassed Obama with the scandal of spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee as they were writing a report on CIA torture. Although he made all kinds of bombastic statements about expecting an apology from the committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Brennan ended up apologizing instead to Senator Feinstein. Yet Obama sticks by him.

You trace the transformation of Washington, DC, and the explosion of the deep state to the 1970s, the Powell Memo and the explosion of tax-exempt foundations and its origins to the secret development of the A-bomb. A recent National Review article uses the term, “Government of, by, and for Special Interests,” and ascribes that to progressive politics and the New Deal. Are these views reconcilable?

Well, their view is certainly not my view. Enough people know that something is wrong, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is or how it works, so the editors at the National Review have had to craft a counternarrative to muddy the waters; that’s all it is. For crying out loud, William Buckley Jr. came out of the CIA; I wouldn’t be surprised if he were part of Operation Mockingbird. Time-Life and other media outlets were on the payroll of the CIA during the 1950s. Their role was to reflect the CIA’s point of view. Buckley, after graduating from Yale, a favorite recruitment center for CIA, went into the CIA, but only for two years. Why? [CIA director Allen] Dulles would have gravitated to him because he was a Yale man and because his father was rich. It seems very possible that Dulles, or some other CIA executive, told Buckley he could do more for the cause by creating a conservative front group to push the CIA’s Cold War line and to denigrate the isolationist posture of conservatives like Sen. Robert Taft.

One of the inflection points you mention in the development of the deep state was the fall of the Berlin Wall. How did “the end of history” connect to the present dystopia?

Instinctively, you would have thought the end of the Cold War meant we could demobilize and become a normal country again, but apparently the Cold War had gone on so long and created so many institutions and so much infrastructure with no other purpose than the creation of new threats. The powers that be essentially directed the same Cold War state into the post-Cold War world. What I saw from my perch in Congress was that defense procurement continued exactly as before. They continued to buy expensive weapon systems designed to fight the Soviet Union.

I also think there was a psychological angle: Once we had defeated the Soviet Union and there was no alternative system to compete with, we could unleash unencumbered laissez-faire policies, what Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine.

And you’ve seen where that’s led in Hungary. People deprived of any reasonable alternative have opted for fascism, just as they did in the 1930s.

I think you saw the same thing to an even greater extent in Russia. After the 1990s orgy of asset stripping, the Russian people were so disgusted they accepted a strongman like Putin who could at least keep the oligarchs from challenging the state.

In your book and elsewhere, you refer to the historical precedents similar to the conjuncture in the United States you describe in The Deep State – the French Third Republic, the ancient régime, the Hapsburgs, the Romanovs, ancient Rome, the USSR. You have emphasized that it is most important to consider how the United States arrived at its specific present circumstances, but is there one particular historical instance you would consider most salient?

Not really: History does not repeat itself. These are simply analogies. But a good analogy that is also relatively recent and deals with another state with an overdeveloped military-industrial complex is that of the USSR. There, in spite of all the propaganda organs, people simply gave up believing in the system. The development of US demographics – and particularly the new study of excess middle-aged white mortality – primarily due to alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide – which heightens the USSR analogy.

How does the deep state survive and even thrive in spite of its obvious failures from the war on drugs to the “war on terror,” from economic to political and social justice?

Well, although it doesn’t do much to help the res publica or the economy as a whole, it does help certain people. This circumstance creates a kind of perverse Darwinism in the short and medium term, so thatharmful traits are the ones that are selected for. And most people simply don’t look at the long-term results of their actions, but mirror the typical corporate executive whose timeline is the next quarter’s results and how they will impact the price of the stocks he owns.

What is the position of finance in the deep state? What does it mean to “fight for an open economic system?”

A macro explanation of the trade deals of the last 25 years – NAFTA, CAFTA etc. and now the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] – is to forget about tariff schedules and what textiles cost. These agreements are a bargain between the United States and other countries whereby the US gives privileged access to US markets in exchange for submission on foreign and economic policy. The powers that be are perfectly happy to destroy the economic seed corn in the USA in exchange for temporary dominance abroad. They’re willing to sacrifice Detroit for the UAE [United Arab Emirates].

As a congressional staffer, I presume you interacted regularly with people you would now consider operatives of the deep state. What can you tell us about them as people? What motivates them? What immunizes them so thoroughly from democratic concerns?

I think it’s hard to improve on Upton Sinclair’s dictum, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I think they’re all about the logic that if it pays for their kids’ cornflakes and their scholarship fund, they will do it without their conscience bothering them too much.

So you don’t see them as malevolent?

Oh no, it’s much more banal than that.

Like Hannah Arendt on Eichmann?

Exactly, the banality of evil.

You mention the outsourcing of congressional staffing to ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] post-Gingrich in the book. Let’s take one concrete instance of US legislation – the 342-page USA Patriot Act of 2001, initially introduced by the Bush administration less than a week after September 11. Can you explain a little how the deep state would have been involved in its drafting and enactment and how it continues to serve the deep state’s – rather than Americans’ – interests? Also, what were your own thoughts at that time?

We can assume that all those provisions that didn’t quite get into all the crime and intelligence bills introduced earlier just sat on a shelf somewhere in the Justice Department and were dusted off. The Patriot Act was drafted by the government in an executive agency. Now what we have 15 years later is pretty much ALEC-template bills in statehouses – and even on Capitol Hill, legislative drafts originate with the tech industry or K Street so congressional staffers don’t have to worry their pretty little heads about drafting legislation.

You have elsewhere described the inequality of the US criminal legal system and the flat-out “corruption” of the Roberts court. Would your proposals to abolish corporate personhood and get money out of politics be adequate to remedy these abuses?

No single nostrum will be a miraculous panacea. But getting money out of politics is the precondition for anything else, including abolishing corporate personhood, enforcing anti-trust law and reforming health care. You have to align politicians’ incentives with the public interest rather than the interests of political donors.

Your second recommendation for downsizing or dismantling the deep state is to “sensibly redeploy and downsize the military and intelligence complex.” Andrew Bacevich – whom you cite extensively in your book – recently argued that there is no effective civilian control of the Pentagon. How then can we mobilize its downsizing, let alone the reallocation of resources to domestic infrastructure?

Congress doesn’t really attempt to exercise control. Getting money out of politics is also the first step in exercising civilian control of the military, because otherwise the donor base in the military-industrial complex has too much influence on policy.

With the deep state in control, have our elected government organs become purely ceremonial or do elections still make a difference?

There is a symbiotic relationship between the deep state and surface democracy. And the type of person who holds office does matter on the margins. Individual decisions do make a difference. The incentive structures for all concerned tend to be shared in a certain fashion because of careerist best interests. I’m not pointing to some massive conspiracy. All of this is going on in the light of day. Everyone knows who the Koch brothers are, General Dynamics etc. It’s just that most people do not see how it all works as a system and how we’ve been conditioned to look at it.

You advocate reform of US immigration policy …

This is impossible to effect at present … I’m a little different from most people I know in that I am appalled by what Trump says, but I also do not agree with unlimited immigration. Corporations love H-1B visas. Importing temporary labor is analogous to hiring strikebreakers during the coal strikes 100 years ago. Unlimited supply of labor undermines unions and wages. This is not to condemn the people seeking the jobs, just as the strikebreakers 100 years ago were desperate to support their families, but the H-1B visa system has become perverse – a form of corporate-sponsored human trafficking.

But when the US has, by Washington Consensus programs and trade treaties, destroyed livelihoods in neighboring countries or, by its militarized foreign policy and/or support for rapacious dictatorships, destroyed physical security for populations in targeted countries, don’t we have some responsibility toward those so displaced?

Oh, it’s our fault to a significant degree. Ever since 1954 and the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, we’ve been destabilizing Latin America. Of course, their population wants to come here. I argue for a different foreign policy, but we are where we are and the problem started decades ago. You can’t ask a worker in Toledo or Detroit or Flint to make sacrifices for the greater good of humanity when people in Palo Alto and Wall Street are not willing to give up anything.

With – as you note – the United States living off its principal and saddled with a deeply entrenched, incompetent and unaccountable management, how can we respond to a true existential crisis such as anthropogenic climate disruption?

It’s difficult to do anything that matters, especially with respect to a perceived longer-term problem, because we’ve adopted the corporate model for government as [Gov.] Rick Snyder did in Michigan. People are paid to look to the short term. Campaigns that are financed by rich donors tend to condition politicians to think short term.

You’ve been very careful to distinguish the deep state from an active, conscious conspiracy, but is it possible or likely in your view that some of its operatives have been involved in, for lack of a better word, plots to dismantle democracy?

They wouldn’t put it that way. They think they’re legitimately working on political issues. But how it impacts the public is another matter. What the governor of Michigan did was a conspiracy against democracy. He needed to appoint emergency managers with autocratic powers because he needed to undo municipal government and carry out his pro-corporate agenda. His emergency manager plan was rejected in a public referendum, so the Republican-controlled legislature attached the proposal as a rider to an appropriations bill. Therefore it was no longer subject to referendum. Rick Snyder and his cronies are hamstringing the ability of local governments to respond to democratic concerns and consciously doing so in order to pay for the tax cuts they gave to corporations. It was a conscious effort to undo democracy in Michigan, and it ended up poisoning children. What happened was nothing more than racketeering, in my judgment.

You periodically excoriate the US public in the book for failures of good citizenship, but you finish by suggesting that if we “disenthrall ourselves,” our ability to live sensibly and peacefully in the world as it is will ensue. How do you suggest those already disenthralled – in which I would include most Truthout readers – proceed?

Most Truthout readers are not the majority in this country. It’s partly a media problem. Forty years ago, commercial media was dominated by 50 to 60 companies. Now it’s half a dozen. There’s been this tremendous concentration in corporate media and those companies left are not interested in telling the public long, complex stories about where taxpayer money goes. What they do give the public is Kim Kardashian. It’s not that the American people aren’t bright enough to understand, but many of them don’t have the time to consult alternative media and they’ve been subject to a powerful conditioning program the last few decades. There have been cases in the past when uneducated people – farmers, coal miners in the early 1900s – clearly understood the essential economic relationships at work in the country, and significant reforms like wage and hour laws, prohibitions of child labor and collective bargaining resulted. We did it before and we can do it again. That gives me hope for the future.

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