If nothing else, the Trump debacle has introduced a lot of people to the idea of the “deep state”. Comparisons with rotten states like Egypt and Pakistan are being made, questions are being asked about the role of US security agencies in leaking against the Trump administration and particularly in the ousting of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, and concerns being expressed that security agencies are working against a democratically elected government, whether you like that government or not. The term “coup” is even being used.
The core idea is that non-elected, secretive intelligence and security officials, a permanent and unaccountable part of the ruling class, resent Trump’s disruption, his enthusiasm for rapprochement with the Russian kleptocrat Putin and his determination to work around them rather than be guided by them. One pro-Russia commentator went so far as to suggest the campaign against Trump was being waged by the military-industrial complex that fears better relations with Russia.
That argument can be disposed of pretty quickly — the military-industrial complex stands to do far better out of Trump than it did out of Barack Obama, with Trump committed to increasing defence spending by at least $500 billion — and demanding that American allies increase their spending as well. Far from being some challenge to the military-industrial complex, Trump looks set to usher in a spending nirvana not seen since the profligate Reagan years. And Trump has already demonstrated an enthusiasm for exactly the same small-scale interventions that marked the Obama years, with the disastrous Yemen operation that killed dozens of civilians, including children, and a US serviceman. And that’s before you get to the likely ramping up of the US military role in the Middle East — which the Turnbull government, mindful of its precious refugee deal, is already signalling a willingness to join — and the war with China that some in Trump’s ranks apparently hope for.
What’s more interesting — if predictable — is that for Trump and his supporters, suddenly leaking and unauthorised releases of information are again verboten. After a brief flirtation with the joys of transparency and the benefits of leaking, secrecy and confidentiality are back in vogue. “I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said in October, while quoting from leaked Hillary Clinton emails. “It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the internet.” Now, “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” and “Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!” Not to mention “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”
Trump’s hypocrisy (probably the most trivial charge that could be levelled at him) aside, he mischaracterises the nature of leaking in Washington, or any other capital. Far from being a problem, it is a standard tool of governments, and of politicians. Politicians leak for their own advantage or their opponents’ disadvantage; governments leak for the same reason. Such leaking is almost never investigated — they are “official” leaks, even of classified or secret information. Public servants — whether in intelligence agencies or other institutions — also leak to serve themselves, providing another form of “official” leaking, but some also leak to serve what they see as the public interest. These are very much not official leaks — and are investigated much more often and more aggressively.
Troubled governments, and governments with internal conflicts, leak much more than successful governments. The Howard government, for example, had very few cabinet level leaks (until one particular minister, who is still with us in a prominent role, was promoted into it). The “deep state” thesis about Trump overlooks that his “government” is a shambles and divided between GOP loyalists and Trump’s own weird crew of ideological fringe dwellers like Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. Coupled with the near-complete lack of government experience of many of Trump’s appointees, such an administration was always going to be a rich source for leaks, and that has proven to be the case: many of the leaks hurting Trump are from his own people within the White House, not security agencies. It’s Trump’s own hand-picked personnel leaking against him, not Obama-ite sleeper agents in the NSA or disgruntled security establishment hands resentful of being out of the loop.
Those who oppose secrecy within government and support greater transparency should welcome all forms of leaking of information in the public interest. Information revealed in the course of a conflict within a ruling clique is just as important and useful as that revealed by a whistleblower eager to expose wrongdoing. Both forms corrode the ability of governments to operate without accountability or public scrutiny.