This is not just a matter of priorities, or even of civil liberties and privacy and war. It’s a matter of who is really running the show in this country. Is it primarily our elected officials, or is it something deeper and harder to define?

There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power…

…During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life.

This concept is a little different than the “permagov,” by which we mean the people who serve in or decisively influence the government regardless of which party is in power. That idea connotes a kind of bipartisan agreement on certain basic issues related to foreign policy and military spending and how the economy should ultimately be structured. Republicans might talk about doing away with Social Security, but they don’t really want to take the political risk to do it. Democrats support public unions, until they have to balance a state or city budget. The parties score a lot of political points, but on many of them they have no intention of delivering.

But there is something different that drives us to misallocate our funds and devote ourselves so dedicatedly to meddling in other country’s domestic affairs. It isn’t a reaction to what the people want. It isn’t much discussed as an ideological matter. It seems to be some kind of organic result that emerges through a combination of fear that some security catastrophe will occur for which politicians will be blamed, and fear of standing up to powerful lobbyists. You could consider it the Gitmo Problem writ-large.

We want to close Gitmo, but can’t because politicians are gutless. We know at least half of the prisoners should be freed, but no wants to be blamed if one of them turns around and commits an act of terrorism. So, we keep allocating funds for the prison and perpetrating an injustice because we can’t figure out anything else to do.

That seems similar to the trap we’re in with foreign policy and surveillance. It certainly matters whether the president is eager to intervene in places like Syria and Iran, or deeply reluctant. But, on a broader scale, the state runs the way it wants to, and no politician seems capable of standing up to the nebulous Deep State that keeps things this way.

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