National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, center, arrives in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, center, arrives in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. Andrew Harnik/AP

Are Leakers Defending Democracy or Corroding It?

Are leaks about the White House the work of bureaucrats who want to undermine the president? And if so, is that a good or bad thing?

To paraphrase presidential candidate Donald Trump, somebody’s doing the leaking. But who, and why, and does it represent a defense of American democratic norms or a death knell for them?

There’s no shortage of theories. Some of the damaging leaks are emerging from the White House, as part of internecine warfare between rival factions. But the more consequential ones, including the revelations that forced the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn Monday night, have hinged on information from the intelligence community.

Trump has tried to change the focus away from the substance of the leaks and to their provenance. On Tuesday, he tweeted this:

He then followed that up Wednesday morning:

Trump may want to change the subject, and his imprecations about the danger of leaks look a lot like the tears of a crocodile, but that doesn’t mean the questions he raises aren’t important.

The president referred to a column by Eli Lake in Bloomberg View, calling Flynn’s ouster a “political assassination.” Lake rejects the White House spin that Flynn was fired simply because of a breach of trust with Trump. Instead, he blames Democratic politicians and, more importantly, the intelligence community:

Flynn was a fat target for the national security state. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer and a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama. Flynn was working to reform the intelligence-industrial complex, something that threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals.

But there are other theories, some of which overlap. At the Washington Free Beacon, a site that is conservative but has generally been anti-Trump, Adam Kredo reports on what he says is “a secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump's national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran,” including Ben Rhodes, a former top aide to Barack Obama.

Rhodes rejected the Free Beacon story. “It’s totally absurd and doesn’t make any sense,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t know who the sources are for these stories and I don’t even understand the false conspiracy theory—how would getting rid of Flynn be the thing that saves the Iran Deal? It’s an effort to make the conversation about anything other than the actual story of what happened with Russia.”

Even if there’s no grand conspiracy, there are any number of potential individual culprits. There have also been a stream of stories about frustration, demoralization, and fear within the federal workforce.

Central to the Flynn story is Sally Yates, a career prosecutor who became a high-ranking Justice Department official in the Obama administration. She became acting attorney general after Trump’s inauguration. Yates informed the White House counsel in late January that Flynn was not telling the truth when he claimed he had not discussed sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador, and that the Justice Department was concerned that he was vulnerable to blackmail. A few days later, Yates said Justice would not defend Trump’s executive order on immigration, and she was fired. That means Yates loyalists might have an incentive to leak damaging information.

And Trump has waged a months-long campaign against the intelligence community. During the campaign, he repeatedly rejected the consensus assessment that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta in order to interfere with the election, only in January saying he accepted that conclusion. The day after his inauguration, Trump went to the CIA, where he sought to bury the hatchet. “I am so behind you,” Trump said. “There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump.” In his tweets Wednesday, he notably did not mention the CIA, but his feud with the intelligence community is apparently back in action.

As a general rule, it’s probably unwise to pick a fight with spies, a point Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer made in early January. “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you,” he said. “So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”

Yet Schumer’s warning, even if realistic, is chilling: Not only does it raise the possibility of unelected, faceless bureaucrats using classified information to retaliate against a duly elected president, but that comes in the wake of the intelligence scandals of the Obama years. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed the vast powers that the NSA had accrued and could use, even on American citizens, with little or no oversight.

Some commentators have dubbed what’s going on the revenge of the American Deep State, in reference to the existence—real, imagined, or a little bit in between—of a bureaucratic shadow government that constrains the legitimate government in places like Turkey. In Turkey, generals devoted to the secularist ideology of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk have repeatedly toppled governments that they worried were threatening that ideology. In January, when a dossier of explosive and unverified claims about Trump was published, Glenn Greenwald, the leftist journalist who helped break the Snowden story, warned that liberals who cheered the dossier were in effect cheering for an intelligence coup. Greenwald specifically labeled these actions the work of a Deep State, writing, “But cheering for the CIA and its shadowy allies to unilaterally subvert the U.S. election and impose its own policy dictates on the elected president is both warped and self-destructive. Empowering the very entities that have produced the most shameful atrocities and systemic deceit over the last six decades is desperation of the worst kind.”

The idea of a “Deep State” constraining Trump was not new. Back in February, when the idea of a President Trump still seemed wildly implausible, Megan McArdle wrote that he wouldn’t be able to do that much damage even if he won, thanks to bureaucrats who could slow-walk or even block his priorities. “This is the reality: Most of what you want to do to Washington won’t get done—and neither will much of what you want to get done outside of it, if you insist on taking Washington on,” she wrote. After the inauguration, some liberals took new heart in that idea.

But the Deep State motif has really gained in popularity over the last few days, as the pace of leaks undermining Trump has accelerated. “The fact the nation’s now-departed senior guardian of national security was unmoored by a scandal linked to a conversation picked up on a wire offers a rare insight into how exactly America’s vaunted Deep State works,” Marc Ambinder writes at Foreign Policy. “It is a story not about rogue intelligence agencies running amok outside the law, but rather about the vast domestic power they have managed to acquire within it.”

It’s not just the leaks. At SlatePhillip Carter argued that pushback from career officials had helped prevent Trump from instituting a plan to reinstate torture, labeling this the work of a deep state.

Not everyone buys the analogy.

“I wouldn’t call what is going on in the United States a Deep State,” said Omer Taspinar, a professor at the National War College and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who is an expert on both national security and Turkey.

The Turkish Deep State is something different, Taspinar contends—a clandestine network of retired intelligence officials, mafiosi, and others who engage in prosecutable criminal activity. He offered a hypothetical scenario that would echo the sorts of tactics the Turkish Deep State deployed in the war against Kurdish separatists: Imagine if white nationalists with ties to the administration conducted false-flag attacks intended to gin up concerns about Islamist terror and enable Trump’s tough immigration controls.

“It was not the judiciary, the civil society, the media, or the bureaucrats trying to engage in checks and balances against a legitimately elected government,” he said. “What we’re witnessing in the U.S., it’s basically the institutional channels.”

Even leaking, which sometimes does flirt with violating the law, doesn’t deserve to be tarred as the work of a nefarious deep state, Taspinar said.

“Anything that would try to portray what the leakers, or what the government officials try to do as a ‘Deep State’ is an attempt to delegitimize whistleblowers or people who believe that what the government is doing right [now] is against the Constitution,” he said. “Any kind of bureaucratic resistance is too innocuous to be labeled as the activities of the Deep State.”

Perhaps there needs to be a better term for the resistance that bureaucrats offer to presidents they oppose. (After all, some experts contend they also hobbled Obama on some issues.) But one common element, from whistleblowers to bureaucratic leakers to violent Deep State thugs in Turkey, is a commitment to certain norms and practices, and the sense that the only way to defend norms is to violate them on a case-by-case basis.

And as the Turkish example shows, that works—up to a point. The problem is that when a deep state pushes too far, it can undermine itself and end up empowering that which it seeks to prevent. The Turkish military repeatedly toppled governments, starting in 1960. But more recently, its power has waned. Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used allegations of Deep State plotting against the government as a pretext for mass arrests of dissidents, detention of journalists, and further crackdowns on civil society. In July, some elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup, but were too weak to succeed. Even Turkish liberals who disliked Erdogan condemned the coup. The Deep State now seems too weak to work real change, but the threat is strong enough to allow Erdogan to discredit legitimate opposition.

There’s a great gulf between the Turkish situation and the Trump administration—though some analysts have not hesitated to draw parallels between the two men’s styles. Trump’s American opponents, like their Turkish counterparts, face the challenge of fostering leaks and bureaucratic resistance that can hem in the Trump administration and reveal any wrongdoing. If they go too far, however, they risk catastrophe in two directions: They might empower an unaccountable intelligence agency, with dangerous long-term effects; or they might inspire such a backlash from Trump and his allies in Congress that he works to dismantle the bureaucratic system, removing an essential constraint on the president’s power. The question isn’t what the good choice and bad choice are; it’s what the least worst choice is.