In May 2018, Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, said Texas Governor Greg Abbott may have emboldened Russian "fake news" efforts during the 2016 presidential election by responding as he did to an anti-Obama conspiracy theory in 2015 — which Hayden claims was fueled by Russian actors.
Speaking on MSNBC's Morning Joe program, Hayden speculated that Abbott’s decision to call on the Texas State Guard to "monitor" Jade Helm 15 — a large-scale military training exercise — proved to Russian actors the potential impact of what Hayden called their "information warfare" strategy, and emboldened them to go still further:
They took their game to North America in 2015, and I won't belabor it here, but there was an exercise in Texas called Jade Helm 15 that Russian bots and the American alt-right media convinced most, many Texans was an Obama plan to round up political dissidents.
And it got so much traction that the governor of Texas had to call out the National Guard to observe the federal exercise, to keep the population calm. At that point, I'm figuring the Russians are saying "We can go big time," and at that point I think they made the decision 'We're going to play in the electoral process.”
(Abbott engaged the Texas State Guard, not the National Guard as Hayden inaccurately claimed.)
Jade Helm (or Jade Helm 15) was a broad conspiracy theory which first came to prominence online in early 2015, and about which we have written extensively. Conspiracy theorists at the time claimed that the federal government, led by President Barack Obama, was training and preparing the armed forces for the imminent implementation of martial law, to be followed by the "pacification and subjugation of the American people by their government."
Over the course of 2015, the conspiracy theory became progressively more complicated and less coherent, with claims that Jade Helm was somehow linked to a spate of Walmart closures in Texas and other states, that civilians were being implanted with microchips, and that federal authorities had constructed "base camps." (There was significant overlap between Jade Helm and "FEMA camps," another widespread conspiracy theory which reached its peak during the presidency of Barack Obama.)
Jade Helm 15 was a real military exercise, one conducted by United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, California and Nevada, between July and September 2015. Such was the level of public fear about it — brought on mostly by wild online speculation, misinformation, and outright disinformation — that military authorities saw fit to deny that the training was preparation for martial law.
In March 2015, USASOC spokesperson Army Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria told military news web site Stars and Stripes that the furor was brought on by lack of knowledge about how training exercises work:
"This exercise is routine training to maintain a high level of readiness for Army Special Operations Forces because they must be ready to support potential missions anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice."
He said the only thing unique about this particular exercise, which is slated to take place between July 15 and Sept. 15, is “the use of new challenging terrain” which was chosen because it is similar to conditions special operations forces operate in overseas.
Lastoria attended a public meeting in Bastrop County, Texas in April 2015 in an effort to calm public concerns, but was confronted by a largely hostile and skeptical audience:
The conspiracy theory reached peak hysteria during that same month, when Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to "monitor" the USASOC training exercise, a move which some criticized as legitimizing a baseless and potentially harmful set of rumors:
I've ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm 15 to safeguard Texans' constitutional rights, private property & civil liberties
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) April 28, 2015
Todd Smith, a former Texas State Representative and a fellow Republican, sent Abbott a scathing open letter in which he criticized the governor for "pandering to idiots," and added:
...I am horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn't have the backbone to stand up to those who do.
In the end, Jade Helm 15 ended without incident, contrary to the fears expressed by conspiracy theorists; the routine training exercise came to an end in September 2015.
Hayden's comments in May 2018 focused the national spotlight once again on Abbott's decision to engage the State Guard, this time in light of mounting evidence of a coordinated Russian campaign of deliberate and targeted disinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
In response to the former CIA director's intervention, the Texas Democratic Party condemned Abbott as a "Russian pawn" and a "useful idiot." In a scathing press release, the state party's Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia wrote:
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was a Russian pawn and a useful idiot for Russian efforts to turn gullible Texas Republicans against the United States. Michael Hayden knows a Russian operation when he sees it. Hayden served the America people under three different administrations in high-profile intelligence roles.
But, it doesn’t take an intelligence expert to see that Trump Republican Greg Abbott calling the Texas National Guard on the U.S. Military was downright idiocy. Abbott still owes the men and women of our armed forces, and every single Texan, an apology.
A spokesperson for Abbott declined to comment when we asked for a response to Hayden's remarks.