WASHINGTON — Call it the deep-state defense.
After the Pentagon stripped an official’s security clearance for reading a top-secret paper in public, his allies said he was “caught in the web of the deep state.”
When federal agents raided the home of a government contractor suspected of taking classified documents, his supporters denounced the “deep state F.B.I.”
And when a conservative conspiracy theorist rejected a plea deal with the special counsel, he claimed he was targeted because he dared “to oppose the deep state.”
President Trump has long tried to explain away his legal troubles as the work of a “deep state” of Obama supporters entrenched in the law-enforcement and national-security bureaucracies who are just out to get him. Now junior officials and others accused of wrongdoing are making the case that the same purported forces are illegitimately targeting them, too.
The defenses have frustrated some current and former government officials — including at the White House — who say the accused are trying obscure their responsibility for mishandling classified information.
Adam Lovinger, a Pentagon analyst, was one of the first to wrap himself in the deep state defense, and he appealed the loss of his security clearance in a closed hearing last week. His lawyer, Sean Bigley, has become one of the architects of the strategy.
“If someone had come to me a couple years and started talking about the deep state, I would have rolled my eyes and said, ‘You are in tinfoil-hat territory,’” Mr. Bigley said. “But I have now represented well over a dozen people who have been targeted for political reasons.”
A Striking Coincidence?
Alleging misconduct by law enforcement has long been a standard defense tactic, especially in white-collar cases, but the political cast of deep-state-style claims is new, said Samuel Buell, a Duke law professor and former federal prosecutor. He said it seemed to be aimed at getting conservative media attention in the hope that Mr. Trump will come across their case and intervene.
“From the practitioner standpoint, this is not going to appeal to the judge,” he said. “You are playing to a different audience — the one with the pardon power.”
Indeed, Mr. Lovinger has become a cause célèbre on the right. His lawyer has appeared on Fox Business and Sean Hannity’s radio program to argue that bureaucrats have weaponized the security clearance process against government workers who are Trump supporters. Conservative media outlets like The Daily Caller, The Washington Free Beacon and Breitbart regularly cover him.
The case traces to a September 2016 Hawaiian Airlines flight from New York to Honolulu during which Mr. Lovinger reviewed a document with labels showing it contained highly classified information. Unbeknown to Mr. Lovinger, he was sitting next to a naval intelligence officer. When the plane landed, the officer immediately reported the security breach.
By the time Mr. Lovinger joined the staff of the National Security Council five months later under President Trump, his troubles were mounting. He faced additional investigations into allegations that he had orchestrated the leak of information to a reporter and improperly increased the security clearance of a Pentagon contractor, according to a summary of the inquiry.
In May 2017, Mr. Lovinger’s own clearance was suspended, and he was escorted out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Mr. Bigley said.
Determined to win it back, Mr. Lovinger fashioned himself a victim of Democratic-supporting national security officials. “Security clearances are being weaponized against the White House by hostile career bureaucrats, thwarting the president’s agenda by holding up or blocking appointees,” Mr. Bigley, his lawyer, wrote in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed this spring.
Mr. Bigley disputes the Pentagon’s charges, saying the document on the plane was improperly marked and contained no real top-secret information and that his client leaked to no one. As for the dispute over the contractor’s clearance, Mr. Bigley insisted that his client followed procedure.
The real motive for the scrutiny, Mr. Bigley said, stemmed from complaints Mr. Lovinger made in 2016 about lucrative Pentagon contracts awarded to outside consultants, including at the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s strategy group where he worked.
Their defense took on its deep-state tinge over the summer after an academic named Stefan Halper, the recipient of one of the contracts Mr. Lovinger had questioned, was identified as an F.B.I. informant who sought information from Trump associates during the early stages of the investigation into ties between the campaign and Russia.
As Mr. Trump and conservative media began to portray Mr. Halper as a deep-state spy inside the Trump campaign, labeling it Spygate, Mr. Bigley amplified his deep-state defense. Though Mr. Lovinger had not known about Mr. Halper’s work for the F.B.I., he had complained about his Pentagon contract.
“Mr. Lovinger was targeted because he blew the whistle on Stefan Halper and a Clinton crony getting suspicious defense contracts,” said Tom Fitton of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which has sued for files about the case. “It is disturbing that the Defense Department may now be implicated in Spygate targeting of President Trump.”
But there is no evidence Mr. Lovinger’s clearance was revoked for political reasons, said Robert O. Work, the deputy secretary of defense in both the Obama and Trump administrations, asserting the officials who oversaw Mr. Lovinger were fiercely apolitical. “It is quite surprising to me that someone would think this is some sort of deep state,” Mr. Work said.
Mr. Lovinger has a found champion in Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, who said this year without evidence that he believed the Justice Department was “spying” on him for his criticism of the Russia inquiry. Mr. Gohmert has introduced a bill, the Adam S. Lovinger Whistleblower Reprisal Act of 2018, aimed at giving additional protections to government employees who report wrongdoing.
A Spreading Strategy
While Mr. Lovinger may have seized on the defense early, it is spreading. Jerome Corsi, who recently published a book called “Killing the Deep State,” employed it as he began publicly discussing his potential plea deal last month with the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III.
In November, Mr. Corsi decided against agreeing to plead guilty to lying to Mr. Mueller’s investigators, who have questioned him about whether he had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to publish stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Corsi has insisted he simply misremembered events and portrayed himself a victim of Mr. Trump’s purported enemies in law enforcement and national security.
“I guess I am going to have to go to prison for the rest of my life because I dare to oppose the deep state,” Mr. Corsi said.
Others targeted by Mr. Mueller have taken up the mantle. George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who served two weeks in prison for lying to investigators, is working on his own book: “Deep State Target.”
Last month, F.B.I. agents searched the home of Dennis N. Cain, the former bureau contractor, as part of a counterintelligence investigation, suggesting they had information that Mr. Cain was illegally storing copies of classified bureau documents there.
Mr. Cain had provided copies of the F.B.I. files to the Justice Department inspector general as part of a whistle-blower complaint. The documents related to the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One, a Canadian mining company whose sale in 2013 to the Russian state-owned nuclear power corporation was subject to American approval because the nuclear fuel is considered a strategic asset.
The State Department under Hillary Clinton approved the sale, and a conspiracy theory has developed that she signed off because a businessman who once owned much of the company had made a large donation to her foundation years earlier. There is no evidence Mrs. Clinton played any personal role in approving the deal, but the theory has gained credence in conservative circles.
After The Daily Caller first reported the raid on Mr. Cain, conservative websites piled on, arguing that it showed a deep-state cabal in control of the F.B.I. Donald Trump Jr. linked on Twitter to another Daily Caller story about the raid. And Mr. Cain joined in last week: “So I blow the whistle on the FBI, get raided by the same FBI, and now they want to keep the FBI’s reasons secret?” he wrote in a since-deleted Twitter post. “Do we now live in a secret police state? Feels a little like ‘1984.’”
A reporter for The Daily Caller wrote in an email last week sent to congressional aides, right-wing figures and others that prosecutors were engaged in a “cover-up for the F.B.I.” The reporter, Richard Pollock, added: “Eventually, justice will be done.”
The F.B.I. declined to comment.
The inspector general delivered the documents to the congressional intelligence committees, a person familiar with the case said. The Senate Intelligence Committee received documents they believed to be from Mr. Cain but deemed them meaningless, according to a committee official. The committee has decided not to interview Mr. Cain; Republicans and Democrats on the panel had already concluded they had no compelling reason to scrutinize the uranium deal.
Still, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has demanded that the inspector general provide him copies of Mr. Cain’s documents and asked the F.B.I. about the raid.
And some organizations, including left-leaning groups, have criticized the raid, saying Mr. Cain should have enjoyed whistle-blower protections. Mr. Cain and his lawyer say they followed federal whistle-blower rules.
But by bringing the documents home, Mr. Cain violated those rules and lost his legal protections, experts said. “The rules must be followed,” said Mark S. Zaid, a national security lawyer who has represented whistle-blowers. “It is a very simple and straightforward concept.”