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Doonesbury, the long-running lefty comic strip, poked at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in a June 2015 installment presenting Mike Doonesbury and a buddy chatting about Texas and the federal military exercise that led Abbott to alert the Texas State Guard.
In the strip published June 14, 2015, buddy Bernie says: "I wonder how they’re making out with Jade Helm 15 in Texas."
"What’s Jade Helm 15?" Doonesbury replies.
"A military exercise," Bernie replies. "It’s routine, but Gov. Abbott activated the State Guard to monitor it… in case the troops try to impose martial law, disarm innocent Texans, and detain them in tunnels beneath closed Walmart stores."
Of course, Doonesbury is satirical. Still, we wondered if the strip accurately recapped Abbott’s actions and motives.
Overview: Jade Helm 15
U.S. military officials have described the Jade Helm 15 operations running from July 2015 into September 2015 as a long-planned exercise occurring throughout the Southwest—including parts of Bastrop County near Austin—to include special forces units from multiple armed services, such as Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs.
The Army’s Special Operations Command said in an April 2015 press release: "The public can expect nothing much different from their day-to-day activities since much of exercise will be conducted in remote areas. The most noticeable effect the exercise may have on the local communities is an increase in vehicle and military air traffic and its associated noise. There will also be economic gain: an increase in the local economy, in fuel and food purchases and hotel lodging."
Still, some eyebrows squinched in reaction to a map for the exercise that came public labeling Texas, Utah and California as "hostile" for training purposes. In April 2015, an Army representative faced numerous hostile questions at a Central Texas meeting. Over two hours, Bastrop-area residents made it clear to Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria of the U.S. Army they had qualms about the exercise being a way for federal forces to take over Texas and much of the Southwest.
Lastoria was told he couldn’t be trusted and was asked whether Jade Helm 15 would involve bringing foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, whether U.S. troops would confiscate guns and whether the Army intended to implement martial law. Lastoria’s answer for all three was no.
The day after that meeting, Abbott announced he’d told the all-volunteer Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise, though aides said he was not buying into conspiracy theories. Amelia Chasse, an Abbott spokeswoman, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle saying Abbott "deeply trusts and respects the United States military."
By email, Garry Trudeau, the award-winning creator and author of Doonesbury, told us he based Bernie’s statement on Abbott’s directive to the Guard commander that it monitor the exercise "to address concerns of Texas citizens." Trudeau said: "Those ‘concerns,’ expressed in town meetings with the Army, came in the form of highly entertaining conspiracy theories. I included my favorite, although it’s possible the Governor’s actions were prompted by an even nuttier one."
"I make no claim as to when or if Guardsmen will report for duty," Trudeau further said, "just that Abbott directed the Guard to be activated for monitor duties, per his letter."
Abbott indeed wrote a letter, dated April 28, 2015, telling the Guard commander, Major General Gerald "Jake" Betty, to keep an eye on the Jade Helm 15 exercise. That day, Abbott’s office released the letter with a press release stating the governor had delivered the same guidance to Betty in person.
Abbott’s letter did not say the Guard was being activated or deployed. It did say:
"To address concerns of Texas citizens and to ensure that Texas communities remain safe, secure and informed about military procedures occurring in their vicinity, I am directing the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm 15.
"During the Operation’s eight-week training period… I expect to receive regular updates on the progress and safety of the Operation.
"During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed. By monitoring the Operation on a continual basis, the State Guard will facilitate communications between my office and the commanders of the Operation to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans."
Noting U.S. military officials had assured Texas that locations chosen for the exercise would pose no risk to residents or property, Abbott added: "Directing the State Guard to monitor the Operation will allow Texas to be informed of the details of military personnel movements and training exercise schedules, and it will give us the ability to quickly and effectively communicate with local communities, law enforcement, public safety personnel and citizens."
His letter closed by stating "the action I take today" comes with support and respect for the nation’s troops. "I remain certain," Abbott wrote, "that our military members will keep America the freest and strongest nation the world has ever known."
Six days later, Abbott told reporters "someone has to be in charge with gathering and disseminating information," the Associated Press reported. "We stepped in to play that role, which is a role to be applauded," Abbott said. Asked whether addressing the issue legitimized fringe theories, Abbott said no. He said he was responding to citizen questions, which he said the government has an obligation to answer. "I've seen nothing that would cause anybody to worry about what's going on," Abbott said.
Wondering if Abbott’s directive added up to activating the Guard, we left phone messages for Abbott’s press aides and didn’t hear back. Our separate request for an interview with the appropriate Guard official was declined. But the Guard said in an email not attributed to a person: "The directive from the Governor is designed to expedite his communication with USASOC as well as city and county officials by utilizing Major General Betty and the Texas State Guard as his designated representative for this exercise. They understand military operations as well as what details are important to communicate locally in Texas communities."
Another Guard email to us indicated its approximately 2,200 troops were not activated in connection with monitoring the exercise: "The Texas State Guard has been called to State Active Duty three times this year," the Guard said, to respond to floods and to support the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Operation Strong Safety near the Texas-Mexico border.
On the whole, we didn’t find independent signs of Abbott having concerns about martial law, guns getting taken or underground detentions. Also, before Abbott wrote the commander, his office tried to reassure scores of people calling and writing about the federal plans, the San Antonio Express-News later wrote. Constituents received an email and letter signed by Dede Keith, deputy director of Abbott’s communications division, stating: "Rest assured, this is not a martial law exercise."
Trudeau stands by claim
Trudeau, in a follow-up reply, said he assumed that by telling the Guard to monitor the exercise, Abbott put in motion an activation of troops to occur once the exercise begins. "While the governor didn't specify which ‘concerns’ he was addressing, his letter was issued in the context of a contemporaneous, well-publicized swirl of conspiracy theories," Trudeau wrote. "What other concerns could he have been talking about?"
Bernie, a Doonesbury character, said Abbott "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."
Abbott told the Guard to monitor the exercise though far as we can tell, no troops were dispatched or activated. It’s also worth noting Abbott has said Texans’ safety and rights were not threatened by the federal maneuvers.
On balance, we rate Bernie’s statement Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Press release, "UPDATED PRESS RELEASE: Exercise readies SOF for threats abroad," Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, April 20, 2015
News story, "Meeting does little to sway critics of Army training in Bastrop County," Austin American-Statesman, posted online April 27, 2015
News story, "Abbott's call to monitor Army exercises draws criticism," the Houston Chronicle, April 29, 2015
Emails, Garry Trudeau, author, Doonesbury, June 17, 2015
Press release, "Governor Abbott Directs Texas State Guard To Monitor Operation Jade Helm 15," Gov. Greg Abbott, April 28, 2015
Letter, Gov. Greg Abbott to Major General Gerald "Jake" Betty, commander, Texas State Guard, Texas Military Forces, April 28, 2015
Emails, Texas Military Forces Public Affairs Staff, June 17-18, 2015
News story, "Texas governor: Criticism of State Guard request overblown," The Associated Press (from the Washington Times website, accessed June 17, 2015)
News blog post, "In DC, Gov. Abbott addresses personal faith and huddles with senators on EPA," Trailblazers blog, Dallas Morning News, May 7, 2015
News story, "Abbott’s first response to Jade Helm more measured, records show," San Antonio Express-News, May 28, 2015
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