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Wave of leaks stirs fears of a U.S. ‘deep state’

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Nicole Tung / The New York Times

Women wave Turkish flags during a rally two nights after a coup attempt in Ankara, Turkey, July 17, 2016. A wave of leaks from government officials have hobbled the Trump administration, leading some to draw comparisons to countries like Turkey where shadowy networks within government bureaucracies, often referred to as the “deep states,” undermine and coerce elected governments.

WASHINGTON — A wave of leaks from government officials has hobbled the Trump administration, leading some to draw comparisons to countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where shadowy networks within government bureaucracies, often referred to as “deep states,” undermine and coerce elected governments.

So is the United States seeing the rise of its own deep state?

Not quite, experts say, but the echoes are real — and disturbing.

Although leaks can be a normal and healthy check on a president’s power, what’s happening now extends much further. The United States, those experts warn, risks developing an entrenched culture of conflict between the president and his own bureaucracy.

Issandr El Amrani, an analyst who has written on Egypt’s deep state, said he was concerned by the parallels, although the United States had not reached authoritarian extremes.

The growing discord between a president and his bureaucratic rank-and-file, he warned, “is dangerous, it encourages deep divisions within society, it creates these constant tensions.”

“As an American citizen I find it really quite disheartening to see all these similarities to Egypt,” El Amrani said.

What Makes a Deep State?

Although the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.

In Egypt, for instance, the military and security services actively undermined Mohammed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, contributing to the upheaval that culminated in his ouster in a 2013 coup.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has battled the deep state by consolidating power for himself and, after a failed coup attempt last year, conducting vast purges.

Although U.S. democracy is resilient enough to resist such clashes, early hints of a conflict can be tricky to spot because some push and pull between a president and his or her agencies is normal.

In 2009, for instance, military officials used leaks to pressure the White House over what it saw as the minimal number of troops necessary to send to Afghanistan.

Leaks can also be an emergency brake on policies that officials believe could be ill-advised or unlawful, such as George W. Bush-era programs on warrantless wiretapping and the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

“You want these people to be fighting like cats and dogs over what the best policy is, airing their views, making their case and then, when it’s over, accepting the decision and implementing it,” said Elizabeth N. Saunders, a George Washington University political scientist. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“Leaking is not new,” she said, “but this level of leaking is pretty unprecedented.”

Institutional conflicts under Trump, she worried, had grown into something larger and more concerning.

Trump, apparently seeking to cut the intelligence community, the State Department and other agencies out of the policymaking process almost entirely, may have triggered a conflict whose escalation we are seeing in the rising number of leaks.

Culture of Conflict

Officials, deprived of the usual levers for shaping policies that are supposed to be their purview, are left with little other than leaking. And the frenetic pace of Trump’s executive orders, which the agencies would normally review internally over weeks or months, has them pulling that lever repeatedly.

They have leaked draft executive orders, inciting backlashes that led the orders to be shelved. And they have revealed administration efforts to circumvent usual policymaking channels, undermining Trump’s ability to enact his agenda.

Trump’s moves to consolidate power away from those agencies under his own authority also has them struggling to keep what they see as their crucial role in governance.

“We’re in a world now where the president is playing to the edge of his powers, and I think there are real concerns about the constitutional implications of some of the actions he’s taken,” said Amy Zegart, the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

That has forced officials in agencies to ask how far they will go themselves. As each side begins to perceive itself as under attack and the other as making dangerous power-grabs, it will justify more and more extreme behavior.

“In President Trump, you have a president whose behavior shocks even more than the content of his policies,” El Amrani said.

“This was very much the case with Morsi,” he said, which led the civil service to “leak aggressively” to oppose Morsi’s disregard for bureaucratic norms and procedures. “You’re seeing the same thing now.”

Tit for Tat

Trump’s tendency to treat each leak as an attack rather than an attempt to influence policy has created an atmosphere in Washington of open institutional conflict.

Some leaks appear motivated by more than mere policy disagreements, such as the revelations concerning conversations between Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, which led on Monday to Flynn’s resignation.

This came after months of worsening relations between Trump and the intelligence agencies, which he frequently criticized during his campaign.

Trump, in rejecting intelligence assessments that Russia intervened in the election to help him win, has risked implying that he will only accept intelligence bent to his political interests.

Trump plans to appoint Stephen A. Feinberg, a finance executive who was an early supporter of his campaign, to review the intelligence agencies.

“It looks, sounds and feels like a political witch hunt,” said Zegart. “It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire.”

“What’s happening here is that the president doesn’t even want to hear intelligence that he doesn’t agree with, and jumps to the conclusion that it must be politicized, and must be the result of people conspiring against him,” Zegart said.

By creating the perception of conflict, Trump may have made it more likely.

Crossing the Line

Flynn, in his short tenure, exemplified the breakdown between the president’s inner circle and career civil servants. He kept the National Security Council largely shut out of policymaking and sought sweeping changes in foreign policy.

For concerned government officials, leaks may have become one of the few remaining means by which to influence not just Flynn’s policy initiatives but the threat he seemed to pose to their place in democracy. That has fueled speculation that details of Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador could have been leaked as much to undermine Flynn as out of concern for impropriety.

Even if that was not the case, such practices are a hazard of officials’ growing reliance on leaks and other tools of bureaucratic resistance. This risks entrenching a culture of bureaucratic warfare that is adversarial and dysfunctional by default — not quite a Turkish-style deep state but not a healthy democracy either.

Officials are stuck in a difficult position: Even if each individual leak is justifiable, as insubordination becomes more sustained and overt, it inches deeper into the gray zone of counter-democratic activities.

The distinction between deep-state meddling and acceptable protest is difficult to draw in the United States, Zegart said, because this degree of opposition is so unusual.

“I don’t think you can say in advance what inappropriate deep-state activity would look like, because we haven’t seen this before,” she said.

In countries like Egypt, El Amrani said, the line is much clearer.

There, “the deep state is not official institutions rebelling,” he said, but rather “shadowy networks within those institutions, and within business, who are conspiring together and forming parallel state institutions.”

Trump, by treating these institutions as if they are already his political enemies, makes that harder to avoid.

Bad for Everyone

A lesson of deep states: Even minor decisions become the subject of political infighting, making basic governance difficult.

“We saw in Egypt in 2013 that the result is complete decision-making paralysis,” El Amrani said.

That is one of the milder outcomes. But when institutions with vast power to eavesdrop, fine, harass and detain see themselves as locked in a zero-sum struggle for survival, it is often basic civil liberties and democratic rights that end up in the crossfire.

El Amrani does not believe those worst-case scenarios are likely to come to pass in the United States. But there is still a risk that bureaucratic resistance against the president could become an enduring feature of U.S. politics. Once trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild.

Zegart agreed. “There are no good long-term consequences here,” she said. “This war between the intelligence community and the White House is bad for the intelligence community, bad for the White House, and bad for the nation’s security.”

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