Why we need a 'Deep State'

There is a Deep State. And we need it now, more than ever. But it is better called the “Steady State.”  And yes, it exists within the Intelligence Community.

The Steady State has members in every U.S. government agency and department. They make our airplanes safe at the FAA; they keep our national parks beautiful at the Department of Interior; fight our wars at the Department of Defense; keep our ports working at the Coast Guard; investigate and prosecute crimes at the Department of Justice; and fund and maintain our highways at the Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration. Steady Staters manage the funding of the medical research that keeps us healthy at the Department of Health and Human Services; push the barriers of physics at the National Laboratories, and help farmers get the best yields at the Department of Agriculture. The list goes on.

The Steady State is made up of men and women who have chosen government service as a career — often for less money than they would make in the private sector. They work for Republican and Democratic administrations, and while they may like (or dislike) a particular president’s policies, they carry them out. Their value to the country —and to all presidents— is that their experience and wisdom, stretching over decades, can inform the politicians who come and go. They do not subvert, but they do enhance. They do not obstruct, but they do advise. They are not political, but they serve politicians.  They are competent, experienced and truly patriotic.


One part of the Steady State that has become a frequent target for vicious attacks by the administration and members of Congress is the U.S. Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Community (which includes the CIA, NSA, FBI, and others), acting as a collective, acquires information about the world, analyzes that information, and provides decision makers with the product. This work allows the U.S. to be safer and more secure.  But many hate the Intelligence Community’s professionals, calling them the “Deep State.” In recent days these claims have amplified, in response to a Department of Justice Inspector General report finding no political bias by the FBI in their “Crossfire Hurricane” operation.   They are wrong.  In fact, the Steady State in the Intelligence Community is itself perhaps among the most important of the “sources and methods” used in intelligence work.

To use the words of the National Security Act, the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence requires and relies on “sources and methods.”  But here I do not refer to what we usually think of as “sources” or “methods” — the places (and people) from which secrets are stolen are the sources; the various components of espionage tradecraft, the nuts and bolts of the business, the “how” secrets are stolen are the methods. Those are properly and critically classified (for they need protection) and I will not say a word about them.

Here I am referring to less obvious “methods,” which allow the U.S. to have both the best espionage service in the world, and yet avoid the pitfalls of the KGB, STASI and Gestapo. Espionage and Democracy don’t easily mix, and a cadre of trained spies is a dangerous thing. But we have pulled off the amazing trick of having both. How? What “methods” do we use?  The answers include the Steady State.

Of course, these “methods” also involve a complex structure of legal restrictions and multiple sources of oversight. Laws prohibit domestic espionage, or covert action (propaganda) targeting the U.S. and its citizens. Oversight from within (the Inspectors General and legally-protected whistleblowing), and from without (Congress and a free press) complement and support these laws. It is surprising, but true, that all of these devices are part of the “methods” we use to conduct intelligence by the United States.

But what is pejoratively called the “Deep State” is one of the most important of these “methods.” This is really the body of long-serving Intelligence Officers whose tenure transcends administrations and elections, and whose longevity and experience provides both wisdom and stability, and allows for the embrace and execution of the methods which allow espionage to be effectively conducted in our democracy.


Our Intelligence Officers, by training and culture, are not loyal to a president or a party, but to the Constitution and law. They are institutionally neutral, and the Intelligence Community has developed an array of institutional “methods” to support that neutrality. These methods include adherence to principles of analytic rigor which preclude policy proscription, and focuses on descriptive and predictive intelligence products for policy-making customers. They understand and work with (sometimes with some grumbling) the varied mechanisms of oversight. This is coupled with collection methods designed to identify and neutralize political bias and support for domestic political agendas. The methodology of intelligence function is intentionally designed to keep the spies out of the domestic politics, and unaligned with any political party or leader here in the US.

The sum total of these methods is an Intelligence Community that is not the tool of president or party. It cares little about polls and politics.  It is a profession that values law and truth.

Together these “methods” are as important as the more traditional methods of tradecraft.  But tradecraft methods can be protected by keeping them secret. These non-traditional methods, combining law, culture, oversight and yes “bureaucracy” cannot be protected by secrecy, or kept in a locked safe.

There is a “Deep State” in the Intelligence Community, and elsewhere, if what you mean is a cadre of men and women who are deeply committed to the Constitution, to the Rule of Law, and the basic concepts of democracy and freedom which mark the nation. These principles are indeed deeply held.  The methods of carrying out these principles deeply learned. There is a Steady State. And we must protect it.

Steven Cash previously served as Senator Diane Feinstein’s designee on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and later as her Chief Counsel on the Judiciary Committee; he also served as both an Assistant General Counsel and Operations Officer with the CIA. He began his career as an Assistant District Attorney in New York City.  He is now in private practice handling National Security and White Collar matters for Day Pitney’s Washington and New York Offices.