Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year..
Subscribe for Full Access

Secret Wars

Michael Glennon fears that there is potential for a war between the Trump Administration and the national security bureaucracy [“Security Breach,” Revision, June]. He makes sweeping accusations about the dark motives of the so-called deep state — a secretive network that is conspiring to “maintain the illusion that national security [is] controlled by our constitutionally established democratic institutions.” Unfortunately for Glennon, the facts contradict his alarmist narrative.

Glennon’s assertions about the size and influence of the national security apparatus are puzzlingly hostile. He claims that “millions” of bureaucrats operate with a yearly budget of a “trillion” dollars — gross overestimates, unless one counts every payroll official and groundskeeper. Hundreds of thousands of people work in diplomacy, intelligence, security, and related fields, and yes, they are often effective and influential — that is our rationale for paying them. By casting civil servants as a threatening cabal whose existence signals the transfer of power from elected officials to unelected bureaucrats, Glennon betrays his lack of understanding about how government actually works. Portraying the national security state as a monolithic, independent actor with self-interested motives is a neat way of explaining history. It’s also simplistic. Glennon’s version certainly makes for better TV: unaccountable career feds calling the shots in Afghanistan, heading up the drone program, advocating for mass surveillance. Indeed, in his essay, Glennon accuses civil servants of infamous crimes — the Palmer Raids and “the FBI’s blackmailing of civil rights leaders.” But he’s missing a key point. Each incoming administration places several thousand political appointees throughout the government. They are named by the president and are charged with overseeing his or her agenda. (Trump lags far behind in making these appointments, which may be influencing his view of the bureaucracy.) Policy choices, even devastating or nefarious ones, are made by these political appointees and often blessed by Congress. We could hardly do better in terms of democratic accountability.

Glennon also accuses federal employees within the military and intelligence communities of leaking information to the press in order to retaliate against Trump for his hostile treatment of them. (He doesn’t mention that Trump’s attacks have been both unfounded and politically self-serving.) Glennon’s evidence is weak; unflattering stories about the Trump White House are more likely to originate with the president’s own senior advisers, who are engaged in their own power struggles, than with career civil servants.

Glennon is right that many commentators have recently cast the deep state as the savior of democratic norms, but this view, too, is a misunderstanding of how policy is made. Of course, government experts may shape and slow some Trump agenda items; after all, bureaucrats are not sycophants or inert encyclopedias. But the decision to challenge a poorly constructed proposal, such as Trump’s “Muslim ban,” isn’t a coup — it’s the daily grind of policymaking. Once Trump pursues a fully formed and legally defensible policy, civil servants will implement it, even if it is offensive to people like Glennon. Bureaucrats, more than many others, know that democracy has consequences.

Our bureaucracy is not a coequal branch of government, nor is it a formal check or balance. Other institutions have been charged with those roles, and we should look to them — particularly Congress — to challenge problematic Trump initiatives. Glennon’s essay is curiously silent on the influence of such parties. Even in his worst-case scenario — a mano-a-mano fight to the death — I can’t imagine that Congress, the courts, or external points of leverage, such as the press or the grass roots, would be silent. In any case, it’s far more likely that Trump will realize that the bureaucracy could actually be quite useful to him. As a result, the next four years will likely be a roller coaster — problematic for conspiracy but better for the health of democracy.

Glennon’s scenarios are a useful warning but an unlikely outcome. Rather than look for imaginary battlefields, those concerned by the potential harms of a Trump presidency should lobby and bolster those empowered to check him — senators, judges, journalists, advocates, and organizers. Whether they are up to the task remains to be seen.

Loren DeJonge Schulman
Deputy Director of Studies, Center for a New American Security

Michael Glennon responds:

Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, upbraided President Trump’s military advisers in a May 17 Washington Post op-ed for failing to “manage” him effectively. According to Morell, the president’s counselors haven’t persuaded him to stick to the talking points they give him, and haven’t been able to “redirect” him when he “is heading into inappropriate areas.” Morell’s op-ed was an unusually honest account of the security bureaucracy’s backstage role: to manage presidents, members of Congress, and judges. It has done so, quietly but successfully, for decades. But now bureaucrats are in danger of managing the United States right into autocracy.

It may be surprising that Morell should so brazenly and publicly bemoan Trump’s failure to follow his handlers’ instructions, but this president is “openly at war with his intelligence services,” as the Financial Times put it the following day. Indeed, the very notion of a deep state (a term I’ve never used and don’t like) is now particularly inapposite: Bureaucratic power is on display for anyone willing to look, and, as Edward Luce observed, its “knives are out” for Trump.

Schulman believes that this fight is a figment of my imagination. She recognizes the security bureaucracy’s capacity to initiate a major crisis with the president, but she thinks it poses no threat — either bureaucrats will magnanimously choose to stay in their lane, or the system’s checks and balances will keep them there. Schulman claims the security services were not to blame for criminal acts such as the Palmer Raids, the FBI’s blackmailing of civil rights leaders, Army surveillance of the antiwar movement, the NSA’s watch lists, or the CIA’s waterboarding. All their policies, she notes, are approved by Congress or several thousand political appointees scattered throughout the government, so we shouldn’t fret about lax oversight: “We could hardly do better in terms of democratic accountability.”

Is she right? It’s true that those at the top are nominally accountable for an organization’s actions, but the test of real-world accountability is whether unwanted behavior is stopped. Given the size and complexity of the security bureaucracy, it’s hard for Congress, the courts, or even a president to know what’s going on inside, let alone to impose effective restraints.

Consider the abuses described in the Senate torture report, which was released in 2014. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the CIA had hampered executive oversight and decision-making, repeatedly providing inaccurate and incomplete information about its detention and interrogation program. “White House officials were not answered truthfully or fully,” the committee concluded. From the report, we discovered that the committee didn’t know that the CIA had set up black-site prisons, waterboarded prisoners, videotaped interrogations and destroyed the tapes — in defiance of White House orders. Buried in the footnotes was the fact that the committee was denied access to 9,400 documents that it identified as relevant to its investigation. It requested access to those documents in three separate letters to President Obama. Obama never replied, and the committee’s response was simply to drop the request. No subpoena was issued, no contempt citation was sought — nothing. The courts, meanwhile, routinely used jurisdictional rationales, such as the state secrets privilege, to dismiss suits challenging the lawfulness of the program. As I noted in my article, one can find barely a single case in which anyone claiming to have suffered even the gravest injury as a result of the program has been permitted to litigate that claim on the merits — let alone to recover damages. This is the system of democratic accountability that Schulman believes can hardly be improved.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the inevitability of bureaucratic foot-dragging when policy is changed. That’s common in large organizations everywhere. It’s quite another, however, to think of the U.S. security bureaucracy as a legitimate check on the president, Congress, or the courts. That would be autocracy. We shouldn’t obscure the difference by fantasizing that existing legal safeguards and accountability mechanisms will protect us if the security bureaucracy emerges triumphant in its war with Trump.

Cost of Care

The primary driver of our medical education system is money [“Where Health Care Won’t Go,” Report, June]. Efforts such as Dr. Wheat’s pipeline and the Beyond Flexner Alliance, which encourages medical schools to embrace a social mission, are making a difference, but they can’t compete against the incentive system created by specialization and federal funding for biomedical research.

Last year the National Institutes of Health doled out $25 billion in research grants, and Medicare paid hospitals $10 billion — about $100,000 per medical resident. Family medicine doctors who don’t do research and complete much of their training outside hospitals simply don’t bring in the same amount of revenue. It’s no wonder that the top medical schools don’t even have family medicine departments.

Medical schools have done the math, and the calculations do not add up for primary care, especially in rural areas. Until medical schools are funded to produce and train primary care physicians in the same numbers as specialists, they never will.

Paul Jung
Bethesda, Md.

| View All Issues |

August 2017

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now