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The Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theories were based on the Jade Helm 15 United States military training exercise which took place in multiple U.S. states in the summer of 2015, starting on July 15 and ending on September 15. The announcements of these training exercises raised concerns and led to speculative interpretations that were characterized by The New York Times as "travers[ing] the outer edges of political paranoia".
The joint exercise in realistic military training (RMT) known as Jade Helm 15 was sponsored by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) and involved the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) with other U.S. Military units in multiple states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Utah. Its stated purpose was "to improve the Special Operations Forces' capability as part of the National Security Strategy". It was coordinated and led from Eglin Air Force Base, an Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) base in northwest Florida.
Approximately 1,200 troops were engaged over the course of the exercise. They were "mainly Army Green Berets, but also a small group of Navy SEALS and Air Force special operations troops as well as conventional Army infantry", although the initial request to state officials from USSOCOM listed elements of the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), Marine expeditionary units, the 82nd Airborne Division, and "interagency partners" as participants. Troops engaging in the exercise assumed the roles of either occupying or resistance forces. Most locations were in sparsely populated arid regions near small towns. Some participants wore civilian attire and drove civilian vehicles. Maps of the exercise included areas of the United States such as Colorado and California where no actual operations were planned. The cities in Texas include Bastrop, Smithville, Big Spring, Caddo Lake, Caldwell, Christoval, College Station, Dell City, Eldorado, Goliad, Junction, Leakey, Menard, Mountain Home, San Angelo, San Antonio, and Victoria.
USSOCOM claimed that "the size and scope of Jade Helm sets this one apart" from previous training exercises, such as Derna Bridge or Robin Sage. According to CNN, Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria spoke at an information session for residents in Bastrop, Texas and said that the realistic military training helps soldiers adapt to unfamiliar terrain. In Bastrop, 60 soldiers took part, including the presence of two Humvee vehicles and a "water buffalo" water tank. Private land offered by residents would be used for the exercise, though he noted that they would not be paid for the land or receive a tax break of any kind. Lastoria also claimed that $150,000 in revenue would be brought to the area because of food, fuel, and shopping.
The conspiracy theories seem to emanate from the map shown here from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command which divides the region into four colors, with two "hostile" states, two "permissive" states, two states leaning one way or the other, and California divided. Jim Shea of the Hartford Courant's wrote that the conspiracy theories included: a "psychological operation aimed at getting people used to seeing military forces on the streets" so that they do not realize when an invasion actually takes place; an international operation aimed to seize people's guns; recently closed Walmarts used by the military to "stockpile supplies for Chinese troops who will be arriving to disarm Americans"; and a military plan to "round up political dissidents" and "remove key political figures" who may be against the imposition of martial law. Other theories have described Jade Helm 15 as a "secret plot" to impose martial law, confiscate firearms, invade Texas, and institute "total population control."
The conspiracy theories also included concern about the name of the exercise, with the "jade" possibly referring to China, or possibly an acronym for artificial intelligence developed by the U.S. military. Conspiracy theorist and Texas radio host Alex Jones said that "helm" is an acronym for "Homeland Eradication of Local Militants".
There was some tie-in between the Jade Helm 15 exercise and a resurgence of the FEMA camps conspiracy theory with the exercise raising fear that it was a dry run for forcing patriots into internment camps. These fears were unfounded when the exercise was completed and no one was placed into a camp.
Some conspiracy theorists have connected the Jade Helm 15 military exercise with an apocalypse caused by a comet or asteroid striking the Earth. The Jade Helm 15 military exercise had an ending date of September 15, 2015, which is the same month identified by some conspiracy theorists for the catastrophic impact of a comet or asteroid, based in part on a statement made May 13, 2014 by the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that the world has "500 days to avoid climate chaos". The conspiracy theorists claim that Jade Helm 15 is a dress rehearsal for the imposition of martial law which would be implemented in the event of a catastrophe of this level of severity. However, the NASA Near Earth Object Program publishes the Sentry Risk Table, which is a list that identifies such threats, and the list does not include any object with a high Torino Scale number (a measure of the severity of the threat) for 2015. Also, a NASA spokesperson said, "NASA knows of no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth". But some conspiracy theorists claim that the object has been tracked for years, the object name is known but its published coordinates and orbit information are incorrect, and the threat is not publicly listed because of the thought that panic would ensue. The apocalypse failed to happen on September 15, 2015.
The Austin American-Statesman newspaper noted that after plans and maps of the exercise were made public, there was an "explosion of outrage on social media after the release of the map, which labeled Texas, Utah and the southern tip of California as 'hostile.'" There was also speculation that shuttered Walmart stores would be used for "guerrilla-warfare staging areas and FEMA processing camps", though this theory was debunked by the website Snopes, which specializes in scrutinizing urban legends and Internet rumors.
A survey of registered Republicans by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that 32% thought that "the Government is trying to take over Texas", and that half of all Tea Party supporters are concerned with an imminent Texas invasion.
Greg Capers, sheriff of San Jacinto County, published a letter in the Cleveland Advocate (of Cleveland, Texas), in response to numerous phone calls from citizens, in which he described "alternative news sources" that were spreading inaccurate information about the exercise, and encouraged citizens to "utilize legitimate mainstream news sources" for those interested in accurate information.
On April 28, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation. "During the training operation, it is important that Texans know [that] their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed."
We are assured [that] it is a military training exercise. I have no reason to doubt those assurances, but I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty, because when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don't trust what it is saying.
U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert said in a statement on May 5, 2015 that his "office has been inundated with calls referring to the Jade Helm 15 military exercise" with concerns that the U.S. Army is preparing for "modern-day martial law". He alluded to a notorious remark made by Barack Obama, who claimed that Pennsylvanians were "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion": "I was rather appalled that the hostile areas amazingly have a Republican majority, 'cling to their guns and religion,' and believe in the sanctity of the United States Constitution". He asserted that "the map of the exercise needs to change, the names on the map need to change, and the tone of the exercise needs to be completely revamped so the federal government is not intentionally practicing war against its own states."
All News Pipeline broke Jade Helm to the world on March 13, 2015, 5 days before conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones, who began spreading the conspiracy theory on March 19, 2015, by saying on his radio program and on his website that the federal government was preparing to invade Texas. "They're going to practice breaking into things and stuff. This is going to be hellish," Jones said. "Now this is just a cover for deploying the military on the streets... This is an invasion ... in preparation for the financial collapse and maybe even Obama not leaving office."
In reaction to the sentiment that the military exercises might in fact be movement against American citizens, Dallas Morning News columnist Jacquielynn Floyd wrote a column titled, "Abbott should counter, not cater to, Texans' crazy Jade Helm fears," noting that Abbott's "response to this nut-studded fruitcake of fear was unfortunate." On April 29, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest addressed the concerns of critics in the regular press briefing, saying, "I have no idea what he's thinking," regarding Abbott's letter to the Texas Guard. "In no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon while this exercise is being conducted."
On May 4, actor Chuck Norris voiced skepticism about Jade Helm exercises in his column for conservative website WorldNetDaily. He supported Abbott in his letter to the Texas State Guard, and implied a link to Islamic terrorism, saying:
Whatever Jade Helm 15 actually is, I think it is more than coincidental that the FBI director just confessed in February that the presence of ISIS can be felt in all 50 states of the U.S. and that the Pentagon is suddenly running its biggest military training exercise with every branch of the military across seven Southwestern states.
Comedian Jon Stewart addressed the debate around the exercises in a segment on The Daily Show on May 4 called "Fear and Absent Danger", noting that previous military exercises while Republican Rick Perry was governor did not raise similar concerns.
A survey by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that one-third of Republicans believed the conspiracy theory that the Jade Helm exercise is about "the government is trying to take over Texas", while another third had not made up their minds yet about it.
Clint Watts, and two others in the FBI began to notice Russian disinformation campaigns starting in April of 2014. Watts said that Russian-driven efforts to spread misinformation were involved with Jade Helm 15. In 2017, Facebook shut down a page called "Heart of Texas" which was found to be associated with a Russian company promoting disinformation, including promoting the Jade Helm conspiracy.
On May 3, 2018, The Texas Tribune reported that Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA said that the "hysteria" surrounding the training exercise "was fueled by Russians wanting to dominate 'the information space.'" Hayden said that Russian bots were used to spread misinformation. Governor Greg Abbott declined to comment on Hayden's remarks.
Local officials who have been briefed on the exercise say it is modeled after the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. It calls for some military personnel to play the role of the occupiers and for others to work undetected as part of the resistance.
...some Jade Helm 15 participants "may conduct suspicious activities" as part of their training and others "will be wearing civilian attire and driving civilian vehicles."