“I’ve seen this kind of violence,” said Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse. It really does unnerve me.”
Helt, now a professor at King University in Tennessee, said the images of unrest in U.S. cities, combined with President Trump’s incendiary statements, echo clashes she covered over a dozen years at the CIA tracking developments in China, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Other former CIA and national security officials rendered similarly troubled verdicts.
Marc Polymeropoulos, who formerly ran CIA operations in Europe and Asia, was among several former agency officials who recoiled at images of Trump hoisting a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington after authorities fired rubber bullets and tear gas to clear the president’s path of protesters.
“It reminded me of what I reported on for years in the third world,” Polymeropoulos said on Twitter. Referring to the despotic leaders of Iraq, Syria and Libya, he said: “Saddam. Bashar. Qaddafi. They all did this.”
The impression Trump created was only reinforced by others in the administration. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper urged governors to “dominate the battlespace” surrounding protesters, as if describing U.S. cities as a foreign war zone. Later, as military helicopters hovered menacingly over protesters, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured the streets of the nation’s capital in his battle fatigue uniform.
“As a former CIA officer, I know this playbook,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said in a tweet. Before her election to Congress last year, she worked at the agency on issues including terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
One U.S. intelligence official even ventured into downtown Washington on Monday evening, as if taking measure of the street-level mood in a foreign country.
“Things escalated quickly,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of his job. He emphasized that he went as a concerned citizen, not in any official capacity. After seeing tear gas canisters underfoot, he said, he “knew it was time to go” and departed.
Former intelligence officials said the unrest and the administration’s militaristic response are among many measures of decay they would flag if writing assessments about the United States for another country’s intelligence service.