I am watching trends in my own country that, if I were still at the CIA, would compel me to warn of a threat to another country’s democracy.

Gail Helt | Knox News

I spent nearly a dozen years as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, during both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations. I voted for both. I quit in 2014 to come to King University in Bristol, where I am the program coordinator of the Security and Intelligence Studies program.

Students know me as someone who respects all political opinions if they are rooted in fact and substance. Prior to my government experience, I obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science and had nearly finished a PhD program when the CIA recruited me.

I have watched countries build the institutions of democracy — independent courts, a free press, and checks and balances, to name a few.  Sadly, I have also watched democratic countries backslide, starting a downward spiral that always begins with a decline in the quality of those very institutions.

So it is more than mere emotion or a preference for a political candidate that brings me to put pen to paper: I am watching trends unfold in my own country that, if I were still at the CIA, would compel me to warn policymakers of a threat to another country’s democracy, and I am terrified.

Is the American experiment over?

Because I swore the oath that all national security professionals swear, requiring me to protect and defend the Constitution, I am compelled to issue this warning: unless we change our present course, the American experiment is over.

President Donald Trump has waged an all-out assault on the institutions that form the foundation of our democracy and the basis of a functional government. Driven by apparent resentment of anyone who attempts to hold him accountable, his attacks on the free press have undermined its credibility as a necessary institution of a functioning democracy.

Thomas Jefferson believed that we risk losing our liberty without a free press, and, writing to John Tyler in 1804, called a free press the most effective avenue to the truth—which is why that institution is the first to be targeted “by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”  It is no wonder, then, that President Trump undermines the media.

The president also routinely diminishes the expertise and motivation of his own national security communities, including the CIA, the State Department and, at times, even the Pentagon. The president views these careerists within these agencies as the “deep state,” some secret society whose sole goal is undermining his agenda or removing him from office.

In reality, this so-called “deep state” is really the bureaucracy that houses the tens of thousands of collective years of experience necessary for the government to function, to take on global issues like terrorism, climate change or nuclear proliferation, to build and maintain the alliances necessary to preserve the liberal world order the U.S. has championed and invested in since the end of World War II, and—yes—to successfully confront challenges like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump telegraphs distrust of his own government

Rather than value or consult with the expertise that exists within this bureaucracy, Trump demeans it, sending a message to his supporters that they cannot trust their own government.

How can we maintain a functioning democracy when citizens are convinced their government is working against them? And what message does that send to the international community that has, historically, relied on U.S. leadership?

I urge voters to consider the kind of nation they want to leave to their children. Do you want them to enjoy the freedoms the framers of the Constitution valued?Would you deny them the benefits of the free press, so they ignorantly yield to the whims of an authoritarian leader?

Do you want to leave them a country whose expertise has been gutted and silenced by the suspicions of a leader who holds science, truth and facts in contempt, and places unqualified cronies in positions of power to ensure facts do not somehow leak to the public?

If you truly want America to resume its rightful place as a global leader, to strengthen its democratic institutions, to be a place where knowledge and expertise is valued, and to rebuild the alliances that secured a stable and prosperous world for 70 years, I urge you to carefully consider your vote in November’s presidential election.

Gail Helt directs the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University.