Most conspiracy theories live and die on the Internet, on the ragged fringes of message boards and blogs. Rarely do they migrate to what we (perhaps misleadingly) call the real world. And rarely do they merit the notice of our leaders.
That may be changing. On April 28, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to 'monitor' a U.S. Army training exercise—Operation Jade Helm—that some Texas residents fear is a run-up to the Obama administration declaring martial law in the Lone Star state.
The locus of those fears is Bastrop County, with population of about 75,000, which lies the southeast Austin. One day before Abbott made his announcement the United States Army Special Operations Command sent Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria to Bastrop to quell residents' fears.
According to the Army and the Pentagon, the operation is an intensive training exercise for U.S. Special Forces soldiers. The Army will conduct realistic military training exercises in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
"Jade Helm is simply just a challenging eight-week training exercise for unconventional warfare," Lastoria told visibly upset residents in Bastrop. But many seemed unconvinced.
"In light of the people's overwhelming opposition to this martial law program, would the Commissioner's Court consider reversing their invitation to these guys? And would the court be offended if I told the colonel I didn't believe a single word he just said?" asked one man to resounding applause.
"When we have a federal government that cannot tell the truth, how do we know that what you're saying is true?" asked another. More applause.
Lastoria tried to placate the crowd. "I would just ask everybody not to mix apples and pumpkins," he said. "This institution right here has been around over 240 years," he said, pulling at the patch on his chest that read "U.S. ARMY" in black block letters. "You may have issues with the federal government. You may have issues with the administration. So be it. But this institution right here has been with you over 240 years. Period."
The theory that the Obama administration is planning to turn West Texas Walmarts into FEMA re-education centers has been circulating on the right-wing fringe of the Internet and AM talk radio for a couple of weeks. The uproar seems to have been spawned after a U.S. Army training image for the exercise in which Texas, Utah and a small patch of Southern California are labeled "hostile" leaked online.
Abbott is not the only Texas politician to hop on the bandwagon. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who is seeking to become the next president of the United States, told Bloomberg his office "reached out to the Pentagon to inquire" about Jade Helm.
But others—including former governor and likely presidential candidate Rick Perry, and Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—disagreed. "It’s OK to question your government. I do it on a regular basis," Perry said. "But the military is something else."
"These are incredibly capable, patriotic Americans, and the notion that they’re going to be some sort of private army for the president to take away all our guns is just silly," said Thornberry.
Abbott defended his decision, saying that the Texas State Guard will act as a "communication facilitator" between the state of Texas and Army personnel. In fact, the Texas State Guard told Newsweek it had been in contact with the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) about Jade Helm as early as January, 2015—months before Abbott issued his order. "USSOCOM provided a brief to the Texas State Guard in January 2015 in order to ensure local awareness and transparency concerning this exercise," the Texas State Guard said in an email.
USSOCOM did not respond to a request for comment.