The former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency said Wednesday that conspiracy theories surrounding a military exercise in Bastrop County in 2015 were fueled by a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at dividing the American public.
Michael Hayden, who led the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and the CIA from 2006 through 2009, made the comments during an interview to promote his new book on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday.
“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,” Hayden said. “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.”
The military exercise, Jade Helm 15, began in July 2015 and was meant to study human behavior in conflict zones. However, some conspiracy theorists speculated it was an effort by the government to institute martial law, unleashing some hysteria in the county east of Austin.
Gov. Greg Abbott actually called the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise, not the National Guard. His aides said at the time that he wasn’t buying into the conspiracy theories, adding that he “deeply trusts and respects the United States military.”
Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, who was the top elected official in the county at the time, said Thursday the military exercise went off without a hitch, despite the hysteria that surrounded it.
In the TV interview, Hayden said the Russian success stirring up controversy during Jade Helm served as a template for its eventual interference in 2016 election.
“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,’” Hayden said.
Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday the governor’s office would not comment on Hayden’s remarks, nor would Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, whose district includes Bastrop County.
After learning that Hayden made the comments during a book tour, Pape said he would not entertain the ex-NSA director’s characterization of what happened during Jade Helm.
“I am not going to help him sell books,” he said. “He has something to sell … to continue the discussion and the conspiracy theories and keep talking about something that was not only yesterday’s news but forgotten news.”
Pape said the hype about the training was mostly concentrated from a few individuals — not many, as Hayden claimed.
“I got the sense that it was a lot more of an ideological difference between private citizens and our federal government,” he said. “I certainly didn’t sense anything like that at the time or have any reason to believe that there might be something more nefarious going on. The military came to Bastrop County, did their training and left without incident.”
After Hayden’s comments, though, some Democrats unleashed criticism against Abbott and his actions during Jade Helm.
The Texas Democratic Party called the governor’s decision to keep watch over the military operation “downright idiocy.”
“Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was a Russian pawn and a useful idiot for Russian efforts to turn gullible Texas Republicans against the United States,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Abbott still owes the men and women of our armed forces, and every single Texan, an apology.”
One of Abbott’s Democratic opponents, Lupe Valdez, said the governor had been “duped by Russian bots.”
“He indulged in awful conspiracy theories against our own men and women in uniform,” Valdez said. “He was a puppet in a Russian infowar that sowed distrust amongst Americans and paved the way for foreign intervention in our elections.”