In 2016, the phrase “shadow government” came out of the tangled web of conspiracy theories and found a place in the mainstream American lexicon. The idea that the US intelligence community – part of the “deep state”— has nearly unlimited funding and almost no accountability is a logical concept that most people have simply never considered. Until the election and its aftermath, many were not able to follow the reasonable progression of what happens when a vast organization of people with specialized training, staggering capability, and deep-seated hatred for the President have no one to hold them truly accountable. That very situation, however, is being played out in a disturbing way, in the case of Russia and Vladimir Putin.
As the new President looks to improve relations with Russia, no one – not even Trump – is claiming that Vladimir Putin is interested in becoming a U.S. ally of the same order as countries with which we share intelligence, such as Great Britain or Australia. A basic level of civility and possibly even trade between the two nations, however, is a possibility for the future should the lines of communication continue. As Putin stated, the door to cooperation with the US “lies ajar.”
The question is what will happen should the U.S. walk through that door?
One of the most powerful obstacles to US-Russia relations is not Russia or Vladimir Putin; it is the Deep State. For decades, the Cold War has given justification for the constant expansion of the intelligence community; over time the number of personnel, the amount of technological capability, and an increasing volume of tradecraft has increased as a direct result of the need to stay on top of the Russian threat. If Trump succeeds in bringing the United States and Russia to détente, it will result in a paradigm shift for many in this dark world. Even though President Trump has named Islam as the number one threat to American security – unlike former President Obama who refused to even name it – the vast intelligence network cut its teeth on the Cold War. Without a Russian threat, part of the intelligence community will no longer be needed in the same way.
The intelligence community is painfully aware of this, and as a result, there have been numerous efforts to discredit, shame, and even unseat Trump in the months since his electoral win. The BBC reported last week that a task force in the Central Intelligence Agency established a multi-agency task force as far back as October 2016 to investigate the idea that Trump received election funding from Russia. The anti-Trump report claiming that Russian intelligence caught the President engaging in salacious and even deviant sexual practices also got traction in the intelligence world. The fact that it was later revealed to be a prank by the website 4chan, a wildly popular forum, came out too quietly and too late.
Trump is also shifting the power of data collection and analysis from the military/government world to the corporate one, as his advisors in that area hail from big-data companies like Palantir. Corporatizing data collection would render parts of the intelligence community itself obsolete – or at least far less powerful.
Much like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the early 1990s, the intelligence community sees the writing on the wall about job security, especially under the boot of an administration that views it as more of a hindrance than an asset. The ATF’s attempt to stay relevant in 1993 involved targeting a religious community, a move that resulted in the murder of women and children. One can only hope the Deep State will not engage in those very same tactics in an effort to make themselves seem relevant.