Fact-checking Jade Helm 15

A federal map shows pretend designations of hostile territory for the Jade Helm 15 exercise set to run from July to September 2015. (U.S. Army handout)
A federal map shows pretend designations of hostile territory for the Jade Helm 15 exercise set to run from July to September 2015. (U.S. Army handout)

On July 15, approximately 1,200 U.S. troops, mostly Special Operations forces, will participate in Jade Helm 15, a two-month military training exercise sprawling across seven states in the American Southwest, including Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

While Jade Helm will be one of the largest military training exercises ever performed on domestic soil, the operation has garnered national attention for a slightly different reason: It’s the subject of conspiracy theories propagated by wary libertarians and conservatives worried about the potential establishment of martial law.

These theories have climbed all the way up the highest levels of state government, eventually prompting Governor Greg Abbott to declare in April that he will have the Texas State Guard monitor the training exercise.

In a letter to the commander of the Texas State Guard, Abbott wrote, "During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed."

Conspiracy theories abound

Alex Jones, the popular radio-show host, was one of the first to popularize the theory that Jade Helm was actually an attempt by the U.S. military to prepare for the imposition of martial law.

Jones, writing in March on his website Infowars, warned ominously of a trend toward domestic militarization. A couple of months later, another article from Jones’ website cautioned readers, "Jade Helm 15 is more than just a military exercise, it’s also an exercise of the new field in geo-spatial intelligence using human domain analytics to map the politics and thoughts of any nation, state, city, right down to the individual."

Much of the hubbub circulates around a leaked map that marks all of Texas and Utah, as well as the southern tip of California, as "hostile" territory. This is not the first time, however, that the U.S. Army has conducted training exercises against hypothetical and hostile combatants: past operations include guerilla warfare in North Carolina and insurgencies in Florida.

There are some additional theories that have also circulated online: that the government is arresting political dissidents; that the U.N. is involved in Jade Helm as part of an attempt to seize people’s guns; that ISIS will somehow be involved.

One particularly popular idea implicates shuttered Walmart stores in the area, either as locations for military supply stockpiles or as the bases for a network of underground tunnels. A Walmart spokesman declared there was "no truth to the rumors."

Those rumors made it into a Doonesbury cartoon, which PolitiFact Texas ended up fact-checking. The comic strip claimed that Abbott had activated the state guard to monitor Jade Helm 15 "in case the troops try to impose martial law, disarm innocent Texans, and detain them in tunnels beneath closed Walmart stores." Upon review, we concluded that the comic had gone too far in claiming Abbott had "activated" the state guard, and there was no reason to suppose that Abbott himself assigned any credence to the various conspiracy theories. We rated it Half True.

Politicians respond

Apart from Abbott, a number of other Texas politicians have spoken out on the issue, with many of them blaming the Obama administration for creating such a suspicion of the federal government.

For example, David Dewhurst, the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, wrote a column simultaneously condemning the conspiracy theorists and attributing their suspicions to "legitimate concerns about the competence and trustworthiness of President Barack Obama."

Louie Gohmert, U.S. Representative for Texas’ First District, released a statement on Jade Helm, part of which read: "When leaders within the current administration believe that major threats to the country include those who support the Constitution, are military veterans, or even ‘cling to guns or religion,’ patriotic Americans have reason to be concerned."

Ted Cruz, Texas senator and presidential candidate, reached out to the Pentagon for reassurance about the military exercises, adding, "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."

The Pentagon assured Cruz and others the exercises were completely harmless, with one spokesman stating, "We are not taking over anything."

A quick, final note: conspiracy theories concerning government takeovers are not exclusive to the right.

In the midst of the Jade Helm debate, we fact-checked National Review editor Rich Lowry’s claim: "During the Bush administration, you actually had a prominent liberal write a book about how Bush was preparing for a fascist takeover of this country."

He clarified he was referring to a 2007 book by liberal and feminist Naomi Wolf; in it, Wolf argued that the Bush presidency fulfilled the 10 criteria that mark the rise of a totalitarian society. We rated Lowry’s claim True.