I would like express my sincere thanks to Bill Moyers for his encouragement and advocacy of this project from its very inception. Bill’s suggestion to write an essay on the Deep State was the acorn from which the oak took root. Gratitude is owed to Chuck Spinney and Brian O’Malley, two firm friends and former fellow travelers with me in the government. Their observations over the years helped me crystallize and polish the concept of the Deep State. Thanks also to Andrew Cockburn, Ray McGovern, Tom Drake, Winslow Wheeler, Andrew Feinstein, and Bill Binney for their valuable assistance at critical stages. To former colleagues and bosses who provided me with an endless stock of practical knowledge about the way government really works: well, you know who you are! In hindsight, all my governmental experiences were enlightening, if not always as edifying as a Parson Weems fable at the time they actually occurred. Joy de Menil, the editor of this book, worked tirelessly with me to structure the narrative into a coherent whole. Bridget Matzie, my agent, was an unwavering supporter throughout the project. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without a loving and totally supportive family: Alisa, Laura, and Eric.
For twenty-eight years I was a congressional employee with an interesting and challenging but by no means remarkable career on Capitol Hill as a staff member and national defense analyst for the House and Senate budget committees. I began my tenure as a mainstream Republican in the early days of the Reagan presidency. By the end of my career I considered myself a resolute nonpartisan, and increasingly viewed all political ideologies as mental and emotional crutches, or substitute religions: for leaders, a means of manipulating attitudes and behaviors; for the rank and file, a lazy surrogate for problem solving and a way of fulfilling the craving to belong to something bigger than oneself.
My first perception of this ideological syndrome came in the mid-1990s, when Republicans had taken over the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. It was an exciting time, to be sure, but a tumultuous one. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the Robespierre of the Republican revolution, employed chaos, polarization, and scapegoating as the means of carrying out a divide-and-rule strategy. It worked for a time, but I saw in retrospect that it was a technique that crippled the legislative branch so that it could no longer work effectively. It did not help that many Republican congressmen were too busy lasciviously ogling the sordid details of Kenneth Starr’s report on the Monica Lewinsky affair to notice that an obscure extremist group called al-Qaeda had blown up two of our embassies in Africa.
The real wake-up call for me came during that surreal period between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. If there was any point in our post–World War II history that called for careful analysis of the facts and rational responses that would serve the nation’s long-term security interests, this was surely it.
Instead, a clique of neoconservative ideologues both inside and outside the George W. Bush administration, abetted at every step by the mainstream news media, acted as carnival barkers for the most destructive and self-defeating policies since Vietnam, and maybe since the eve of the Civil War. A majority of politicians on Capitol Hill, along with a sizable portion of the American people, ambled around like sleepwalkers on the edge of a precipice, unaware of the danger the ideologues were luring them into. When the House Administration Committee instructed the institution’s cafeterias to rename French fries “freedom fries” because the government in Paris stubbornly remained unmesmerized by the Bush administration’s arguments for war in the Middle East, I recognized that the People’s House had hit intellectual rock bottom.
Still, I told whoever would listen that the “slam dunk” evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was weak and that by invading Iraq the United States might be purchasing its very own West Bank on steroids—not that my objections changed anyone’s mind. Later, when the invoices began to pile up—the total bill for Iraq summed up to a nice, round one trillion dollars, excluding debt service—I attempted, from my position on the Budget Committee, to reconcile this extravagance, as much as the numbers would allow, with the rote statements of representatives and senators that deficit spending was a sign of an out-of-control government and a national moral blot that would impoverish our children.
Parallel to these developments, the American economy was mutating into a casino with a tilted wheel. Ably assisted by politicians, whom I began to see less and less as leaders and more and more as corporate errand boys, the titans of Wall Street constructed a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose economic system based on Ponzi schemes, asset stripping, and rent extraction. The inevitable result was the economic meltdown of 2008. The eventual solution to that catastrophe was not national reconstruction but a bailout of the financial institutions that had caused the disaster in the first place. They soon returned to record profitability and market dominance as the rest of the country experienced the slowest recovery since the Great Depression.
The twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession seem mentally to have unhinged a portion of the American people and much of the political class. The following years were consumed by crazy arguments about the president’s birth certificate, death panels, and voters shouting that the government must get its hands off their government-provided Medicare. By 2011, when a new crop of Tea Party freshmen had taken their seats in Congress and announced that their first priority was to drive the country into a sovereign debt default, I decided I’d had enough. The circus was being run from the monkey cage, and it was time to move on.
Back in private life, I wrote about the rightward lurch of the Republican Party and the intractable gridlock on the Hill in a book titled The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Perhaps I can claim a modest amount of credit for helping to launch the now-thriving cottage industry of political pundits noticing the nuttiness of the present-day Party of Lincoln with the mortified distaste of an Anglican bishop confronted by a tribe of cannibals. That said, I was hardly ready to launch myself into the arms of the Party of Jefferson and Jackson. That crowd had serious problems, too.
Shortly after finishing the book, I began to feel that I had dealt with the symptoms—lurid symptoms, to be sure—rather than fundamental causes. Diseases always manifest themselves as symptoms, but these should not be confused with the underlying cause of the malady. America’s politics were broken, but so were its economic engine and its supposedly bipartisan foreign policy. Social indicators of human development such as life expectancy and maternal mortality showed that America was slipping in comparison with other developed countries. Economic inequality was growing. Infrastructure was getting rickety. Educational policy was confused and ineffectual. The Tea Party, as gaudy and irrational as its anger might be, was merely one among several warning signs of a deep-seated dysfunction in the way American society was run at the very top.
Anyone who has spent time on Capitol Hill will occasionally get the feeling when watching debates in the House or Senate chambers that he or she is seeing a kind of marionette theater, with members of Congress reading carefully vetted talking points about prefabricated issues. This impression was particularly strong both in the run-up to the Iraq War and later, during the mock deliberations over funding that ongoing debacle. While the public is now aware of the disproportionate influence of powerful corporations over Washington, best exemplified by the judicial travesty known as the Citizens United decision, few fully appreciate that the United States has in the last several decades gradually undergone a process first identified by Aristotle and later championed by Machiavelli that the journalist Edward Peter Garrett described in the 1930s as a “revolution within the form.” Our venerable institutions of government have outwardly remained the same, but they have grown more and more resistant to the popular will as they have become hardwired into a corporate and private influence network with almost unlimited cash to enforce its will.
Even as commentators decry a broken government that cannot marshal the money, the will, or the competence to repair our roads and bridges, heal our war veterans, or even roll out a health care website, there is always enough money and will, and maybe just a bare minimum of competence, to overthrow foreign governments, fight the longest war in U.S. history, and conduct dragnet surveillance over the entire surface of the planet.
This paradox of penury and dysfunction on the one hand and unlimited wealth and seeming omnipotence on the other is replicated outside of government as well. By every international metric of health and living standards, the rural counties of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky qualify as third-world. So do large areas of Detroit, Cleveland, Camden, Gary, and many other American cities. At the same time, wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagining, piles up in the money center of New York and the technology hub of Palo Alto. It piles up long enough to purchase a $95,000 truffle, a $38 million vintage Ferrari GTO, or a $179 million Picasso before the balance finds its way to an offshore hiding place.
These paradoxes, both within the government and within the ostensibly private economy, are related. They are symptoms of a shadow government ruling the United States that pays little heed to the plain words of the Constitution. Its governing philosophy profoundly influences foreign and national security policy and such domestic matters as spending priorities, trade, investment, income inequality, privatization of government services, media presentation of news, and the whole meaning and worth of citizens’ participation in their government.
I have come to call this shadow government the Deep State. The term was actually coined in Turkey, and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary, and organized crime. In John le Carré’s recent novel A Delicate Truth, a character in the book describes the Deep State as “the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.” I use the term to mean a hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with only limited reference to the consent of the governed as normally expressed through elections.
The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century, and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance.
Edward Snowden’s June 2013 exposure of the pervasiveness of the National Security Agency’s surveillance has partially awakened a Congress that was asleep at the switch and has ignited a national debate about who is really in charge of our government. At the same time, a few politicians, most notably Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are beginning to argue that the American economy is rigged. But these isolated cases have not provided a framework for understanding the extent of the shadow government, how it arose, the interactions of its various parts, and the extent to which it influences and controls the leaders whom we think we choose in elections. This book, based in large part on my experiences and observations while in public service, aims to provide that framework.
My reflection on our shadow system of government has come only after my retirement in 2011 and my physical withdrawal from Washington, D.C., proper and the institutions located there. Unlike the vast majority of Capitol Hill strivers who leave the place for greener pastures, I had no desire to join a lobbying shop, trade association, think tank, or consultancy. But I did have a need to see in perspective the events I had witnessed, and I came to realize that the nation’s capital, where I lived and worked for more than half my lifetime, has its own peculiar ecology.
To look upon Washington once again with fresh eyes, I sometimes feel as Darwin must have when he first set foot on the Galapagos Islands. From the Pentagon to K Street, and from the contractor cube farms in Crystal City to the public policy foundations along Massachusetts Avenue, the terrain and its people are exotic and well worth examining in a scientific manner. The official United States government has its capital there, and so does our state within a state. To describe them in the language of physics, they coexist in the same way it is possible for two subatomic particles to coexist in an entangled quantum state. The characteristics of each particle, or each governmental structure, cannot fully be described independently; instead, we must find a way to describe the system as a whole.
Rome lived on its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
—Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man (1871)
If I wanted to go crazy I would do it in Washington because it would not be noticed.
—Attributed to Irvin S. Cobb, in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service (1989)
Imperial City on the Potomac Swamp
Like ancient Rome, Washington, D.C., is an imperial city. The capital of the United States produces laws, Supreme Court decisions, regulations in the Federal Register, circulars from the Office of Management and Budget, a trillion dollars of contracts a year, gossip, scandal, and punditry. All of these products are not dung—well, not exactly—but their value has in recent years become increasingly questionable.
First, a point of clarification: the city is usually not called “Washington” except by out-of-towners. It is “D.C.” or “the District” to the locals. Despite this convention, some congressmen who have held office for decades still affect a folksy, fake-populist cant in their jeremiads against the city they have operated in most of their adult lives and perpetually run for reelection while deploring “those pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington.”* A few years ago, there was a fad among Republican politicians to denounce any spending their constituents or K Street contributors didn’t like as “Washington spending.”
Sometime during the 1980s, the Beltway, the sixty-four-mile-long Interstate highway encircling the capital, came to be used as shorthand for the political culture of Washington. “Inside the Beltway” gradually became the description of an out-of-touch, undoubtedly liberal, elitist snob and the political philosophy he adhered to. Although the actual Beltway had been completed by the mid-1960s, the Reagan administration represented the first mass influx of political operatives who self-consciously viewed themselves as political outsiders and made their aversion to a supposed Beltway mind-set a proud talking point, despite the large number of them, like Michael Deaver and Kenneth Duberstein, who remained in Washington for decades to cash in. It was during the Reagan years that a largely phony inside-the-Beltway/outside-the-Beltway distinction took hold in the minds of Washington’s political operatives. “Beltwayland” as a state of mind was born. It is significant that it was born in the hypocrisy of visceral opponents of Washington’s culture who made the nation’s capital their permanent headquarters.
John F. Kennedy famously quipped that Washington was a town of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” When he said that, more than fifty years ago, he may have been right. Ever since the cornerstone of the Capitol was laid in 1800, similar comments have abounded. Before the Second World War, prior to the widespread use of air conditioning, members of the British diplomatic service stationed in Washington received an extra salary allowance for the presumed rigors of serving in a tropical duty station. The soon-to-be Capital of the Free World might as well have been a colonial outpost in Burma or the Gambia in the eyes of Foreign Office mandarins. During the first year of World War II (just before American entry into the war, a critical time when the British could have been expected to be doing their utmost to woo American support), the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Lothian, found the whole tenor of the town so off-putting that he did his utmost to avoid the wretched place altogether: “He had little interest in anyone in Washington: a boring and provincial town, he thought. He associated with almost no one but the socialites of New York, Newport, and Palm Beach.”1
Fortunately, his death in December 1940 released Lord Lothian from having to serve the crown in the fetid miasma of the Potomac’s tidal swamps.
Despite the vast expansion of government during and after the Second World War, the nation’s capital remained at the time of Kennedy’s presidency surprisingly small and parochial. London, Paris, or Berlin it was not. It may not even have been Stockholm, since it didn’t have so much as a subway system and had only begun building an international airport at the end of Eisenhower’s second term.
No one could ignore the fact that Washington lay below the Mason-Dixon Line during the era when racial segregation sputtered to its inglorious end. The city’s manners, mores, and “peculiar institutions,” like racial segregation, all had a southern flavor. This was unsurprising, as the powerful committee chairmen of the House and the Senate were mostly geriatric southern Dixiecrats. House and Senate committees directly ruled the city with scant regard for the wishes of its citizens. Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia, once told a delegation of black civic leaders from the District that the only realistic prospect for their race was to repatriate to Africa (note that this incident occurred not in the 1850s but after World War II!). Modern memory has tended to blur the fact that Sam Ervin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman whose role in the Watergate hearings made him a liberal hero, was also a staunch segregationist. In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, Ervin drafted The Southern Manifesto, a document urging defiance of federal desegregation efforts; the vast majority of southern senators and representatives signed it.
Watergate and the Rise of 24/7 Politics
Times were changing in America, and soon Washington would be changing with it. While the city began to shed much that was old, rustic, and retrograde, this was not unalloyed progress in view of what it was to become. The Capital of the Free World was gradually exchanging the southern, small-city provincialism of contemporary Richmond for the more indefinable provincialism of a burgeoning metropolis producing little else than politics as blood sport and a governing elite intent on conducting perpetual and lucrative wars on one thing or another, whether drugs or terrorism. The 1970s were a key transition period in this metamorphosis.
In 1971, the city acquired the Kennedy Center, the upstart town’s claim to being a national beacon of arts and culture almost (but not quite) on a par with New York. Adjacent to the Kennedy Center was the Watergate complex, significant not only for its size (which threatened to breach local height restrictions) and contemporary architectural brutalism, but also for its political symbolism. President Nixon’s bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters in that building instituted the politics of 24/7 scandal, accelerated the concentration of national media in Washington, and inaugurated the coming decades of heavily polarized, ideological political parties in America. A crucial adjunct to this politicization was the rise of the tax-exempt foundation, which would soon become the farm team and temporary holding pen for the burgeoning class of operatives who would come to garrison the Deep State.
Foundations have of course existed ever since enactment of the federal income tax law of 1913 gave America’s tycoons an incentive both to dodge taxes and bypass state laws forbidding wills that seek to establish a perpetual inheritance. For the most part, these early foundations engaged in medical research, education, charitable work, and other do-gooding. There were naturally exceptions, such as the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (founded in 1938) and the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies (established in 1963), but by and large the foundation world was a staid and genteel one, and not overtly partisan.
That changed in the 1970s with the rise of the politically focused foundation. The Greater Washington area is now home to over sixteen hundred foundations of various kinds; the hordes of gunslinging grantsmen who try to maintain a façade of scholarly disinterest are functionally as much a part of the ecosystem of the town as the lobbyists on K Street. A new threshold of sorts was crossed in 2013 when Jim DeMint (R-SC), with four years still remaining in his Senate term, resigned from office to become president of the Heritage Foundation, not only because he could exert more influence there than as a sitting senator (or so he claimed—which, if true, is a sad commentary on the status of most elected officials), but also because he would no longer be limited to a senator’s $174,000 statutory annual salary.
By the 1980s, the present Washington model of “Beltwayland” was largely established. Contrary to widespread belief, Ronald Reagan did not revolutionize Washington; he merely consolidated and extended pre-existing trends. By the first term of his presidency, the place even had its first openly partisan daily newspaper, the Washington Times, whose every news item, feature, and op-ed was single-mindedly devoted to harping on some conservative bugaboo or other. The Times was the first shot in a later barrage of openly partisan media. Some old practices lingered on, to be sure: Congress retained at least an intermittent bipartisanship until Newt Gingrich’s speakership ended it for all time. But the foundation had been laid by 1979, when the C-SPAN cameras were allowed into the House Chamber, and the cement was drying fast.
Washington had long since shed the aura of being a sleepy southern town. In 1960, even the rural areas in Maryland north of the capital were culturally southern. By 1983, when I arrived in Washington, many observers reckoned the border of Dixie to lie roughly along the Occoquan River, about twenty miles south of Washington. Now the cultural border is at least as far south as the line of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, more than fifty miles south of the city.
The town was physically changing, too. It was less the growth of the government itself than the metastasizing spread of contractors, lobbyists, media organizations, and think tanks feeding off the government that created contemporary Beltwayland. The District of Columbia proper has a population of 659,000, and is only the twenty-second-largest city in the country, having recently enjoyed modest growth after a steady drop in population since 1950. But the Washington Metropolitan Area, the region around the Beltway, has added two and a half-million people since 1970, making it the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the United States. Tysons Corner, a sprawl of shopping malls and office parks along the Virginia portion of the Beltway, has more office space than anywhere else between New York and Atlanta.
Like other office parks around the D.C. suburbs, but unlike most of the rest of the nation, it also has its own covert CIA facilities camouflaged in plain sight, housed in the usual drab and depressing office barracks that everywhere deface the American landscape. The National Security Agency and many of the other covert arms of the state whose existence many Americans consider quasi-mythical and exotic also have their quota of cheerless satellite offices around the Beltway, where the reality of the daily commuting routine reduces Hollywood’s fantasies of glamorous espionage to a dismal watercooler joke. This is the Deep State at its most numbingly banal.
As Washington expanded, its center of gravity shifted as well. It has long been a part of Republican lore that the town is dominated by the so-called Georgetown elite: a coterie of wealthy liberals who dwell in the west end of town in a historic neighborhood of nineteenth-century houses holding posh dinner parties, salons, and klatches where they socialize, network, and generally conspire to undermine the real America beyond the Beltway.
At one time there may have been some truth to this notion of a dominant liberal elite, particularly after then-senator John F. Kennedy purchased a Georgetown town house in the 1950s. One has only to think of the influential columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop; Katherine Graham, the wealthy publisher and owner of the Washington Post;* Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor during the Watergate scandal; and many others to know that once upon a time there really was a liberal establishment. But Georgetown as a political state of mind was already in decline by the 1980s, and by the time of the death of its most illustrious soiree hostess, Pamela Churchill Harriman, in 1997, it was as defunct as the Romanov dynasty, despite the occasional outburst of right-wing indignation at the Georgetown liberal elite.
Besides, Georgetown had too many elegant but cramped town houses with inadequate wiring, tasteful but worn Persian carpets, and an aura of ever-so-slightly shabby gentility characteristic of the traditional Eastern Establishment. Who needed that when you could buy a brand-new 12,000-square-foot McMansion with cast-stone lions guarding the front gate, a two-and-a-half-story-tall great room, and a home cinema with built-in FSB ports? If that sounds more like the jumped-up suburb of a Sunbelt city like Houston or Atlanta than the traditional, old-money atmosphere of Georgetown or Beacon Hill or the Philadelphia Main Line, it is because that is precisely what the new neighborhoods of the reigning establishment have become.
Up the George Washington Parkway in Virginia, across the Potomac from Georgetown and its shabby-chic semidetached Federal houses lies McLean, where by the late 1970s the growing new elite was already settling in on former pasturage near the CIA’s headquarters. It became the mecca of the moneyed new class: some Democrats (mega-fund-raiser and Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is one such resident, as is Zbigniew Brzezinski), but overwhelmingly they are Republican officeholders of the better-heeled sort (a former employer of mine, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, was one), consultants, lobbyists, lawyers, fund-raisers, pollsters, and the occasional venture capitalist. The roster includes such luminaries as Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich, and GOP megalobbyist Ed Rogers.
McLean is also desirable real estate for executive-level contractor personnel, whose work is ostensibly the technocratic administration of national security programs, but who in practice constitute part of a distinctive American political class. All of these people—politicians, their handlers, lobbyists, contractors—are much the same as the political “new class” that Yugoslavian dissident Milovan Djilas wrote about in 1957 when he described the rising Communist Party bureaucracy as a clique of self-interested strivers who had become a privileged bureaucracy that enjoyed great material benefits from their positions. The pillars of Beltwayland’s establishment, the squirearchy of McLean, often make their living denouncing the evil ways of Washington. So it is that former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan periodically issues jeremiads bemoaning the fate of Western civilization and the white working class from his manse in McLean.
A bit further north and back across the Potomac River from McLean lies the similarly well heeled commuter dormitory of Potomac, Maryland. It is politically more evenly divided than McLean, with roughly equal parts Democrats and Republicans, but the social dynamic remains much the same. Both suburbs are the residential headquarters of the nouveau riche class of political operatives, lobbyists, and contractors who do well by doing good—for their clients and shareholders, if not the country.
Across Beltwayland, similar communities of political interest have managed to coalesce, from deep blue Takoma Park in the Maryland suburbs, which still declares itself a nuclear-free zone, to the deep scarlet developments of McMansions in Loudoun County, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Loudoun is now the richest county per capita in the country. To the east of Washington lies Prince George’s County, the richest county per capita in the country with a majority black population. It is usually considered impolitic to point this out, but Prince George’s County might as well be Vladivostok as far as the prime operators of the Beltway rackets are concerned. It is too facile to ascribe this merely to racism, as Washington’s political classes tend to be oblivious to anything that dwells outside the template of their own careerism. Muncie, Indiana, is not much on their radar screen, either.
The McMansion as Symbol of the Deep State
My own neighborhood lies near the Potomac River five miles south of Alexandria, Virginia, and it is symptomatic both of the economics of Greater Washington and of its association with the military. Its eponym is Fort Hunt, a former military facility that played a key cameo role in World War II and the early cold war. During the war it served as the secret interrogation center for captured U-boat officers (and was known only as Post Office Box 1142), and during a brief period immediately after the war it was a holding pen for important German military and civilian personnel who preferred to give themselves up to the U.S. Army rather than submit to the tender mercies of the Soviets. Wernher von Braun, the father of the all-American space program,* and General Reinhard Gehlen, the head of German military intelligence whose hyperbolic estimates of Soviet forces helped mentor his American counterparts in the art of threat inflation, were both guests of the facility.
Fort Hunt is one of the innumerable current and former bases, forts, and other military properties that dot the D.C. metro area. I do hate to sound flippantly critical of my neighborhood—it is actually idyllic in the old-fashioned manner. There are ice cream trucks in the summer, local parades on the Fourth of July, and so forth. It’s almost like the anachronistic town in the Twilight Zone episode in which the harried executive imagines going back to the warm, friendly community of his youth. But looks can be deceiving. These days you can hardly throw a brick in the Fort Hunt neighborhood without hitting a retired army colonel or navy captain. It is so dependent on government spending that if the Treasury collapsed tomorrow, grass would be growing in the streets within a few weeks. There is also a high percentage of intact, two-parent households in Fort Hunt, which is undeniably a good thing. Those who bray about “family values” and “traditional mores” fail to consider that the modern American economy is increasingly unable to deliver the stable, well-paid jobs, medical insurance, and family leave that make such a way of life possible. Ironically, the despised federal government is one of the remaining employment sources supporting the family structures that conservatives claim to uphold. The neighborhood, with its 1950s split-levels, is as relentlessly middle class as Leave It to Beaver’s fictional town of Mayfield, but a mile or so north, closer to the Potomac views, the better-heeled new class is taking root.
The properties there were allotted in the 1920s, and a surprising number of the houses are quite modest in scale. Or were, a few years ago: one by one, they are being razed. In their place have arisen the stereotypical McMansions that have irrupted across the country in eczematous patches ever since the savings and loan deregulation of the early 1980s. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany as imagined by Walt Disney. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have gotten a much sounder design for the same price or less, but they prefer the turrets, portecochères, and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought, and they accent the whole monstrous ensemble with the obligatory Range Rover in the driveway.
It tells one something about the raw, nouveau riche tastes of the contractors, lobbyists, and corporate lawyers who make up the New Class that they seem to possess a demonic lust to make whole neighborhoods gauche and hideous. They are like Shelley’s Ozymandias proclaiming “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The bloated, sprawling tastelessness of their dwellings is commensurate with the metastasizing growth in and around Washington of the Deep State’s own facilities: elephantine structures, raw and uncompromising in their ugliness.
Within a week of my arrival in Washington back in 1983, the landlord of my basement apartment on Maryland Avenue told me, “Democrats live in Maryland, Republicans live in Virginia.” The reality at present is a bit more complex, but it remains broadly true. In his 2004 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop theorized that in the last thirty years or so, Americans have been sorting themselves into homogeneous communities: people will choose the neighborhood that best fits their beliefs and lifestyle politics.
A 2014 Pew poll concurred, finding both heightened levels of ideological polarization and increasingly different lifestyle choices based on political identification.2 Another survey found that even consumer brand preference has become ideological, whether the choice is cars or laundry detergents.3 Beltwayland, which makes its living from the care and feeding of contending political cultures in addition to housing the growing contingent of contractors and fixers that the Deep State produces, is Bishop’s “big sort” in microcosm—but with increased ideological intensity and heightened stakes for our national future.
Empires Don’t Run on Autopilot
Beltwayland contains other peculiarities as a result of being the capital of the sole remaining superpower. Many novels and insider exposés of Washington feature, as a kind of isn’t-this-decadent-and-aren’t-you-envious bit of authorial conceit, the lavish soirees of Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and points in between as an ironic counterpoint to the rest of America sinking into postindustrial squalor. According to this trope, Alan Greenspan, Andrea Mitchell, Colin Powell, Sally Quinn, and all the other players of the game seem to exist on truffles, smoked salmon, and Dom Pérignon; that is, when they’re not forming a conga line in the back garden of some stately Georgetown mansion. There may be some truth to that picture, but not a lot.
One will notice that most of the characters in these sybaritic sagas of Washington are either elderly, turfed out of their former positions of power, or in the fortunate position of having subordinates do the actual work. A global empire does not run itself. Imperial administrators are too busy to dance in conga lines; that is a job for aging administrators emeriti, or for appointed figureheads who are the mouthpieces of the administrative bureaucracy. With respect to socializing, Washington is actually a dead boring town—there is just too much work to do (granted, some of it is make-work). I have called some of the D.C. suburbs commuter dormitories, for that is what they truly are. With the possible exception of Zürich, I have never seen any “international” city where people go to bed so early. In many of the quieter suburbs, you could fire an artillery piece down the street after sunset and not hit anyone. Why?
In many agencies, the mania for the 7 A.M. or 8 A.M. staff meeting prevails; this practice may derive by osmosis from the heavy presence in Washington of the armed forces and their early-morning work routines. And while the House and Senate have much more relaxed starting times for their official sessions (which can, however, stretch far into the night), before the session, members of Congress are usually attending working breakfasts (which may be fund-raisers) or giving speeches. Who on earth wants to go see a politician speak at 8 A.M.? You do, if you are a lobbyist who needs to be seen there. It is quite the opposite of the atmosphere in imperial Britain described by author Len Deighton: even in 1940, at a time of the greatest peril in the country’s history, it was difficult to find anybody at the Foreign Office before eleven in the morning. The contrast between the two cultures is the difference between the languid self-confidence of aristocracy and the anxiety and elbows-out eager-beaverism of the rising careerist class.
It is perhaps these work schedules, combined with the self-important workaholic’s sense that anything other than his career is a waste of time, that account for Beltwayland’s having a social tenor that combines Puritan Salem with Moscow during the Stakhanovite era of the Soviet Union. All the great intellectual capitals of the past had their playful, bohemian side requiring more or less frivolous socializing: the salons of Paris, the cafés of Vienna, Bloomsbury London. While FDR’s Brain Trust and Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen were reputed to have kept up a semblance of this attitude, those days are long gone and whatever extracurricular socializing I encountered at the beginning of my career was pretty much extinguished by the time of its conclusion.
The reasons for this may have something to do with the triumph of the ideologue and his killjoy spirit, but are almost certainly related to the rise of more or less obligatory “events”—fund-raisers and receptions in honor of this or that bogus person, program, or cause. These affairs, which mingle the tedium of work with the unease and frozen embarrassment of awkward social engagements, have, by sucking up the time that would otherwise be devoted to informal mingling with friends and colleagues, effectively killed private socializing.
Hollywood for Ugly People
Other than possibly Manhattan, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, there is no other large concentration of people in the United States with as high a quotient of careerist strivers as in Beltwayland. It is said that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people,” and Beltwayland has its own peculiar celebrity culture in a kind of parody of Hollywood. The inside-the-Beltway newspaper Politico is the town’s version of TMZ, and it reports on the area’s political sham celebrities with the same kind of guileless gush and gossipy dishing that would have given Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons a run for their money in the old days of the Hollywood studio system. Politico has always been good at the small stuff: If Harry Reid said something snarky about Ted Cruz, or vice versa, it is certain to be the day’s headline. But in dealing with major legislation or matters of war and peace, not so much.
The higher purpose of Politico is to help Beltway denizens maintain the illusion that the bubble they live in is the only reality. And just as a visitor to the Los Angeles Basin will notice that he is in a kind of city-state, cut off from the rest of the country and possessing no geographic center, an alert observer will detect the same dynamic in Beltwayland: a diffuse megalopolis no longer centered on an urban core, possessing rhythms separate and distinct from ordinary national life, and obsessed with the presentation of image.
For different types of celebrity, there are different accoutrements. The social movers and shakers of Hollywood and New York have their own styles, but these do not translate well to their counterparts within the Beltway. However gauche and gaudy they may be at home (and as we have seen, their private homes often exhibit what H. L. Mencken called “a libido for the ugly”), the personnel of the Beltway have to tone it down at work. An Armani suit would never do; it is important that one look the part of a sober servant of the people, or humble petitioner of a servant of the people,* even if the only people one is serving are plutocrats. Therefore, Brooks Brothers or Nordstrom will do just fine: they are as much a civilian uniform as the Class A Service Dress that generals and admirals wear when they testify on Capitol Hill.
One does occasionally see a lobbyist in an ostentatiously expensive suit and decked out with a Rolex or other such vulgar finery. This is, however, the exception, because those he is lobbying, with their high-status and objectively quite powerful but (relatively) low-paying jobs do not like to be reminded of their comparative penury; a gross difference in material status objectifies the bottom line a little too explicitly and hints uncomfortably at the quid pro quo between the lobbyist and the lobbied. It likewise raises the question as to whether the lobbyist’s clients are receiving the best return on their investment.
The same applies to one’s choice of car: no Ferraris or Bentley Continentals such as one might see in Hollywood or Palm Beach—generally, at most one will see a Lexus or a Mercedes in suitably muted colors, although if the owner is an elected official, he had better get an American car so as to keep up his relentless “man of the people” routine. Almost two decades ago, when Pat Buchanan had political ambitions, reporters asked him why, if he was such a fierce protectionist, he owned a Mercedes. In any case, the truly prestige ride in Beltwayland is to be driven in a convoy of identical black Chevrolet Suburbans: this type of motorcade conveys a low-key but intimidating clout transcending the power of the merely moneyed glitterati elsewhere.
Washington was once a relatively egalitarian city: with top salaries limited by the government GS scale, everyone working in and around government had some money, but not so much as to create the yawning social chasms that have always been visible in New York or Los Angeles. While all political pretenses are partly sham, there was at least the ghost of a reality to the “public service” ethos that motivated the New Deal and the New Frontier. In theory at least, the young intern in a congressional office was the social peer of a high-ranking government official, and they might refresh themselves at the same watering holes.
I remember at the dawn of my political career occasionally spending an evening with the pleasant fellows in the grill room of the Capitol Hill Club, an adjunct of the Republican National Committee.* Bob Michel (then House minority leader), Guy Vander Jagt, and Phil Crane were in regular attendance, as were a few Democrats. The conversations then were amiable, good-humored, and, while political, tended not to be combatively ideological. But the infusion of vast amounts of money into Beltwayland has increased social distances; in any case, politicians are now too busy raising money and nervously looking over their shoulders to do much after-hours socializing. In addition, the rise of a humorless, dogmatic puritanism among Republicans makes the prospect of quaffing a refreshment with Michele Bachmann or Ted Cruz as socially awkward as it is unlikely.
As the seat of government and location of the headquarters of the armed forces, Washington has always had a large military contingent. Its presence is impossible to ignore. Now that it is regulation to wear camouflage uniforms as ordinary stateside service dress—is the rationale that an ISIS terrorist may emerge from behind the potted palm at the Washington Hilton?—this post-9/11 convention leads to some incongruous Washington scenes. It has always amused me to see an officer in camouflage dress and desert boots, briefcase in hand, queuing up to board the No. 101 Fairfax Connector bus en route to the Pentagon for grueling duty preparing PowerPoint slides for his general’s budget presentation. A desert camouflage uniform would not render the wearer particularly inconspicuous in an urban setting. Wouldn’t Brooks Brothers be the ultimate stealth clothing on K Street or Pennsylvania Avenue?
However that may be, it is an inescapable fact that Washington is unique among capital cities of the so-called free world in the ubiquity of its military presence. I have never seen anything comparable elsewhere except in East Berlin in 1974 and Moscow in 1979. The extent to which Washington has become a garrison town makes an ironic counterpoint to the widespread myth that the city is some kind of radical-liberal Gomorrah. Its genuine vices are of an altogether different kind.
The growing militarization of Beltwayland has yet to end. This process might have been expected to slacken when the Berlin Wall fell, but the opposite has been true. Beginning in the 1990s, an increasing number of defense contractors, many of whom had been situated in Southern California, began to relocate their headquarters to Washington, D.C., and its suburbs so as to be closer to the political action. Lockheed, a defense and aerospace firm located on the West Coast, moved its headquarters to Bethesda, Maryland, in the D.C. suburbs, when it merged with Martin Marietta in 1995 to form Lockheed Martin. The merger, like those of many other military contractors at the time, should have been a scandal but wasn’t: two years before, at Secretary of Defense William Perry’s urging, Congress passed a provision allowing the merged companies to expense millions of dollars of merger costs on their contracts. (In other words, the taxpayer ended up footing the bill for what should have been in the companies’ business interest to do in the first place.) Companies like Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics have followed suit in this migration to Beltwayland. Even British contracting giant BAE Systems, Inc., has an imposing satellite office in suburban Virginia, just across the Memorial Bridge from the monuments of Washington.
It is worth examining BAE Systems, Inc., and asking just how a foreign company not only got prime real estate in Rosslyn, Virginia, within sight of the Pentagon, but rapidly grew to become the sixth-largest contractor in America’s military-industrial complex while being permitted to merge with domestic American companies specializing in extremely sensitive research and development work. London-based investigative journalist Andrew Feinstein told me that this de facto Deep State merger with a foreign entity grew out of the historical special relationship with the United Kingdom, and BAE’s capacity to engage in deals that were either politically or legally barred to its American counterparts.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration wanted to make a military sale of unprecedented size to Saudi Arabia, but Congress balked. As a reward for Prime Minister Thatcher’s unrelenting diplomatic support of U.S. nuclear policy in Western Europe—which incited huge popular protests—the next-best thing was to let the British make the deal: BAE got most of the £45 billion Saudi deal. Six billion pounds of this sum consisted of “unauthorized commissions,” meaning bribes, to the Saudi royals. Since the British hardware had U.S. technology, the Justice Department was forced to take notice and impose a settlement on BAE. The latter had to pay some derisory fines, but the blooming relationship of America’s military-industrial complex with BAE was undeterred.4 BAE Systems, Inc., the American subsidiary of British parent BAE Systems plc, incorporated on American soil in 1999.
A decade and a half after the Saudi affair, the Deep State sought yet another helping hand from across the pond. At frequent points during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the tongue-tied George W. Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double-talk of British prime minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent (the American political class swoons on cue at gibberish delivered with Received Pronunciation). By a strange coincidence, from the moment of Blair’s Iraq salesmanship onward, BAE Systems, Inc., grew rapidly.
Our stuffy British cousins are now really learning how to play the Washington game: in 2010 they chose Michael Chertoff to sit on the board of BAE Systems, Inc., and in 2012 they named him chairman of the board. While Chertoff displayed negligible administrative vision as Bush’s secretary of homeland security, he did distinguish himself by turning his department’s procurement system into a contractor-infested replica of the DOD’s in only a couple of years. His postgovernment career has been a single-minded attempt to cash in personally on his bureaucratic creation and his own notoriety. Also on the board are former congressman Lee H. Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and General Anthony C. Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, the regional military authority in charge of Middle East conflicts.
The Merchants of Death Go Madison Avenue
This seamless mixture of Mars and Mercury results in some picturesque Washington touches that could never have been glimpsed in Napoleonic Paris or Wilhelmine Berlin, however militarized those capitals may have been. A visitor to the city might be surprised to find ads in the city’s Metro system selling a fighter plane, or spot the huge sign on a telecom building near the Southeast-Southwest Freeway extolling the virtues of an aerial tanker aircraft. A reader of National Journal or Congressional Quarterly or Politico will discover full-page ads for the littoral combat ship.
A listener to WTOP news radio, the city’s highest-rated radio station, will hear commercial spots hawking some homeland security gizmo that promises to make our daily lives even more inconvenient, while other spots solicit persons possessing top-secret/SCI clearances (which give them access to the most sensitive “code word” information) to join this or that Beltway contractor for a unique and fulfilling career. All of this weapon-mongering has become so ubiquitous that no one stops to think and ask one elementary question: why on earth?
It is not as if the commuter from Reston or the soccer mom in Fairfax City is going to plunk down $135 million to buy a shiny new F-35. The U.S. government is a monopsony for the contractors: the sole customer for their wares. Even overseas contracts must be duly authorized, as Congress has the right to prohibit the sale. Government purchases must be made according to applicable statute and according to the Federal Acquisition Regulations, subject to the availability of funds appropriated expressly for the purpose. So why is public advertising necessary?
Despite the formal ban on using contract revenues for advertising, the fungibility of money makes it difficult to interpret ads by a company that is dependent on the government for most of its revenue as anything other than the use of taxpayer dollars in a propaganda campaign for the purpose of pushing their wares in front of Washington’s so-called opinion leaders. Whether they intended it or not, the contractors have succeeded in normalizing the abnormal by transforming the sale of a killer drone into the ethical equivalent of a Mad Men pitch for a new mouthwash brand.
All this shilling for implements of mayhem requires a corresponding quotient of hypocrisy. Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the major contractors take out full-page ads in the Post and many of the other political gazettes of the Beltway to salute and rhapsodize over America’s soldiers in the required reverential tone. There is a sort of unwritten rule that the bottomless cynicism of a merchant of death must not expose itself too visibly, lest the rubes in the provinces catch on. Precisely because I was annoyed by that hypocrisy, I had always enjoyed talking to Ted, an independent defense consultant and former congressional staff member, as he refused to pretend that he was engaged in some sort of patriotic and holy calling. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Ted let on to me that he was on the lookout for business opportunities with the bigger contractors that might open up as a result of that attack.
A couple of weeks later, I was meeting with Ann, a Washington representative of Lockheed Martin, in the Budget Committee conference room. This was several months before most of us had learned to treat invocations of 9/11 as a cynical ploy to advance overtly political agendas, and consequently most people were a bit uncomfortable discussing the topic. After completing her pitch on how the contracting community could be helpful to the Hill during those trying times, Ann launched into a soliloquy about how mortifyingly tasteless some people were in trying to cash in on a horrific tragedy. Her voice resonant with indignation, she emphasized that one consultant had had the gall to ask her company about business opportunities as a result of 9/11! It was Ted, of course, and it was evident that she was attempting to burn his contacts on the Hill. Her performance was all the more bitterly ironic in retrospect: in 2002, the first full year after the terrorist attacks, Lockheed Martin’s net sales increased by more than $2.5 billion. Like a Miss Manners of the military-industrial complex, the Lockheed Martin rep had undertaken to teach us the difference between proper and improper war profiteering.
The Flotsam of Foreign Intervention
Washington is in the business of running a global empire, and often enough its efforts misfire. The metropolitan area is therefore notable for its ethnic enclaves that have resulted from America’s failed interventions abroad over the last fifty years. At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Arlington was flooded with so many Vietnamese refugees who had backed the wrong horse—us—that one neighborhood became known as “Little Saigon.” I once went with some Armed Services Committee colleagues to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington that bore the telltale stigmata of America’s botched crusade in Southeast Asia: on the walls were at least two dozen black-and-white photos taken upcountry of American advisers in tiger-stripe cammies and boonie hats posing with local Vietnamese friendlies. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, another group of exiles, this time speaking Farsi, washed up on the Virginia shore of the Potomac. Now in the 2010s, one of the biggest concentrations of expats voting in the Iraqi elections is in northern Virginia, where polling places are provided.
Northern Virginia may be a magnet for these groups in part because of the close proximity to the Pentagon and CIA headquarters; both agencies have helped many former host country operatives and translators find a new life in America. Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the South Vietnamese National Police chief whose shooting of a Vietcong suspect in front of a camera during the Tet offensive became a famous, or infamous, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph, lived out his days running a pizzeria in Arlington. Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan army officer who defected to the CIA in the 1980s, spent many of the succeeding years living in Falls Church and Vienna, Virginia. In 2014, he had returned to Libya and was trying to overthrow the same people who, with U.S. assistance, had just finished overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi.5 Beneath its buttoned-down exterior, Washington, D.C., and its suburbs seethe with enough intrigue to rival World War II Casablanca, although it probably would not make as good a movie.
The War on Terror as a Washington Real Estate Scam
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I recall some informal discussion in Congress to the effect that Washington and its critical governmental nodes were too vulnerable to terrorist attacks. This was the time when there was a brief fad for “continuity of government” exercises, and Vice President Cheney, then a physical as well as political troglodyte, flitted between “secure, undisclosed locations” that were often underground. The proper institutional solution would have been to permanently disperse much of Washington’s governmental operations to areas around the country: with secure, encrypted teleconferencing and other electronic aids, this plan was eminently feasible. Most other cities have cheaper real estate and living costs.
The problem was the same one defense contractors had solved by moving their headquarters to Washington: career-anxious generals and bureaucrats like to be physically, and not just electronically, close to the action. The newly created Department of Homeland Security, which rapidly became the third-largest cabinet agency, would certainly seem to have been a prime candidate for relocation: if any agency should have been concerned about terrorist attacks, DHS was it. And as a brand-new agency, it could start with a clean slate in thinking about its headquarters location. Yet it ended up in Southeast D.C., less than three miles from the Capitol Building. The kicker was that the property DHS took over was the site of a disused, dungeon-like insane asylum, Saint Elizabeths Hospital. Those readers who are tired of having their shampoo bottles confiscated at airports might ponder the cosmic justice in the location of DHS’s headquarters, which is $1 billion over budget and ten years behind schedule.
This mania for physical proximity to the “decision makers” (and the purse strings they hold) is an abiding obsession of those who indulge in the Deep State’s power games, much as the French aristocracy jockeyed to be in close attendance to the Sun King at the court of Versailles. It reached an apotheosis of sorts in the DOD’s 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. BRAC was supposed to reduce the excess military base infrastructure of the Department of Defense; yet Fort Belvoir, just fifteen miles south of D.C., along with a related site not far away, ended up with 30,000 more personnel as a result. So much for dispersal: Beltwayland already has some of the worst traffic in the country, yet the geniuses on the Army staff decreed that it was appropriate to jam-pack commuters into facilities with no commuter rail transportation astride the main automobile evacuation route from D.C. to points south. The whole notion that 9/11 would “change everything” was, at least insofar as the convenience of the heads of agencies and commands was concerned, a fraud. The fact that the whole scam managed to lift local real estate prices has been a collateral benefit to Beltwayland’s numerous brokers and fixers.
That is not to say that nothing has changed. During the first few years after 9/11, Washington’s neoclassical core was defaced by checkpoints, miles of hideous Jersey wall, and swarms of ninja-suited security squads. The city began to look less like Pierre l’Enfant’s architectural vision of the neoclassical capital of a virtuous republic and more like cold war East Berlin. But what fascinated me most was to watch the reaction of tourists. A large number actually seemed impressed by the display: It was just like television, and there they were in real life, caught up in some drama out of a Tom Clancy novel or an episode of 24. It was something they could relate to via their media conditioning. One suspects the vast majority of Americans’ acquiescence at airports and acceptance of surveillance can be traced to similar behavioral roots. If one is patted down or watched by the government, it is somehow reassuring to be worthy of all that trouble.
For all the bellyaching that goes on throughout the country about out-of-touch bureaucrats, corrupt and unresponsive government, and how much everyone hates Washington, these visible signs of our increasingly intrusive and overbearing government did not fall out of the sky upon an unsuspecting public. The Deep State, along with its headquarters in Washington, is not a negation of the American people’s character. It is an intensification of tendencies inherent in any aggregation of human beings. If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role. A majority of Americans have been anesthetized by the slow, incremental rise of the Deep State, a process that has taken decades. But before turning to the rise of this powerful leviathan, let us consider exactly what it is.
WHAT IS THE DEEP STATE?