We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies.
Our interests are eternal and perpetual,
and those interests it is our duty to follow.
If escaping justice was one of your recent New Year’s resolutions, the United Nations has the book for you: only thing is, it might be checked out. According to a 31 December tweet, the UN’s Dag Hammarskjöld library announced via Twitter that Dr Ramona Pedretti’s Immunity of Heads of State and State Officials for International Crimes was 2015’s most browsed title. While exemption from prosecution for human rights violations and related war crimes are discussed throughout, being an incumbent head of state is equated here with holding a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Just which delegates read the work and why is open to speculation, yet the revelation raised eyebrows across news outlets – in response to the Guardian’s coverage, a wry comments post suggested that the numbers had been inflated by Tony Blair’s repeated consultation of the book. As damage control, the library later stated that the book was only accessed six times, which only proves that UN officials don’t read very many books.
Regardless of the particularities here, the possible consequences of a background narrative awash with case after case of governmental impunity – not limited to the FSB’s role in the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that served as pretext for the Second Chechen War, the Bush administration’s fabrication of Iraqi ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, and the cloaking of the Gezi Park protests under a screen of state media censorship to obscure the endemic use of excessive force by the police, amongst other things – loom, like the sword of Damocles, over countless regimes.
Stemming from these and other clandestine stratagems, ours is an age wherein conspiracy theories have become not only manifest, but also mainstream. This is the context for Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s film ‘Deep State’. A work of paranoid fiction, it delineates a global landscape in which democracy has been surrendered to a shadowy network of self-serving power elites, which hide behind proxies, both ideological and representational, while their policy decisions are likewise sheeted. Such a situation seems plausible, so let’s invite a question: is it possible?
It’s hard to understand why President Obama’s national security and economic record seems to mirror, if not accentuate, that of his predecessor – particularly since he ran on a ticket to reverse them. I’m talking here not only of Obama’s ever expanding digital surveillance network – and the related persecution of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – but also of his administration’s continuing use of extra-judicial killing as a form of policy, from covert SEAL Team Six operations to countless and unending drone strikes. In addition to this, his support for quantitative easing coupled to a near total lack of prosecutions for fraudulent financial service managers has helped maintain the breakneck speed with which the wealth gap has widened since deregulation began way back in the mid-1970s. Eschewing straw-villains, international law professor and former consul of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Michael J. Glennon recently attempted to explain this apparent paradox by tracing how the day-to-day functions of the federal apparatus creates its own unique relations, replete with their own agency.
Drawing on Walter Bagehot’s 1867 treatise The English Constitution, Glennon, a Washington insider, argues that the tactical and technical necessities of running the US have cleaved a ‘double government’. Herein an ‘efficient’ bureaucracy of unelected technocrats set policy, while the government’s more ‘dignified’ parts or, as Glennon calls them, the ‘Madisonian’ public institutions of checks and balances rendered by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, place a symbolical imprimatur upon it. According to Glennon, this is not a nefarious ploy, but is instead the sad de facto sediment of impacted pragmatic thinking:
Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats.
Concerning the White House, Glennon continues that:
The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are ‘on autopilot.’
Said in another way, elected officials offer the illusion of authority; in fact, unaccountable and concealed expert managers run the mechanics with little to no public oversight. Although Glennon traces the lineage of this back to the ‘Trumanite’ networks developed in step with the so-called ‘military-industrial complex’, it is not without merit to pick up a thread embedded in the above through John Poindexter, the former Rear Admiral and Reagan National Security Advisor, who was found to have illegally conspired to sell arms to Iran so as to fund the Contras.
After having his conviction reversed by the appellate courts, a decision the Supreme Court let stand without dissent during a subsequent appeal, Poindexter later returned to government—at the behest of Dick Cheney, no less—to head the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Total Information Awareness (TIA), a digital surveillance project that was ultimately shut down by Congress over concerns about potential civil rights violations en masse. While this last debacle would end Poindexter’s career, TIA ostensibly morphed and grew into the NSA’s PRISM programme made infamous by Snowden’s leaks.
Although Glennon’s focus is on national security, a similar case could be made for the operations of our financial institutions by shedding light on the figures of Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin, to name just a few. Former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson’s ability to force through the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) that authorised almost $700 billion to be dispersed under his own watch – through a freshly-minted regulatory board – might be the most visible surfacing of these generally covert networks. However, it was not this semi-emergence that prompted the Occupy protests, which were instead a response to Obama’s lax finance reforms several years later.
‘Deep State’ begins with a broken TV screen, a trope often used to signify a system hacked; however, instead of clearing the air, the film rolls to show an ever-present state of semantic dissonance as protestors and politicians lock in a repetitive struggle for representation. In the penultimate scene, an agitated British citizen derides ‘Cameron, Clegg’ and, interestingly, ‘that other one that runs the Labour party’. While this man’s angst might be true, his aim isn’t. By focusing on so-called leaders, we fail to recognise that it is not only government, but also the right to sovereignty that has withered away.