Mil­i­tary ex­er­cise stirs con­spir­acy the­o­ries

Fears and spec­u­la­tion — amid rum­blings about Obama’s in­tent — abound in a Texas county

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KEVIN SUL­LI­VAN kevin.sul­li­van@wash­post.com

bas­trop, texas — The of­fice of the Bas­trop County Repub­li­can Party is in an old lum­ber mill on Main Street, with peel­ing brown paint and a sign out front that cap­tures the party’s feel­ings about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion: “WISE UP AMER­ICA!”

In­side, county Chair­man Al­bert El­li­son pulled out a yel­low le­gal pad on which he had writ­ten page af­ter page of rea­sons why many Tex­ans dis­trust Pres­i­dent Obama, in­clud­ing the fact that, “in the minds of some, he was raised by com­mu­nists and men­tored by ter­ror­ists.”

So it should come as no sur­prise, El­li­son said, that as the U.S. mil­i­tary pre­pares to launch one of the largest train­ing ex­er­cises in history later this month, many Bas­trop res­i­dents might sus­pect a se­cret Obama plot to spy on them, con­fis­cate their guns and ul­ti­mately es­tab­lish mar­tial law in one of Amer­ica’s proudly free con­ser­va­tive states.

They are not “nuts and wackos. They are con­cerned cit­i­zens, and they are pa­tri­ots,” El­li­son said of his sus­pi­cious neigh­bors. “Obama has re­ally painted a por­trait in the minds of many con­ser­va­tives that he is ca­pa­ble of this sort of thing.”

Across town at the Bas­trop County Court­house, such talk elic its a weary sigh from County Judge Paul Pape, the chief of­fi­cial in this county of 78,000 peo­ple. Pape said he has tried to ex­plain to folks that the ex­er­cise, known as Jade Helm 15, is a rou­tine train­ing mis­sion that poses no threat to any­one.

Pape chaired a public meet­ing this spring and in­vited a U.S. Army Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand spokesman to an­swer ques­tions about Jade Helm. The meet­ing drew more than 150 peo­ple car­ry­ing signs that read “No Gestapo in Bas­tropo,” “Keep Amer­ica Free” and “Dis­sent is Not a Con­spir­acy The­ory.” Some asked whether the Army was bring­ing in Is­lamic State fight­ers, if the United Na­tions would be in­volved, and whether the mil­i­tary was plan­ning to re­lieve lo­cal gun own­ers of their firearms.

“I’m sen­si­tive to the fact that some of our Bas­trop res­i­dents are con­cerned, and I’m con­fi­dent that they are very sin­cere about their con­cerns,” Pape said. “But how did we get to this point in our coun­try?”

Race and eco­nomic anx­i­ety

Here in the soft, green farm­lands east of Austin, some say the an­swer is sim­ple: “The truth is, this stems a fair amount from the fact that we have a black pres­i­dent,” said Terry Orr, who was Bas­trop’s mayor from 2008 to 2014.

Orr said he strongly dis­agrees with those views, and he sup­ports Jade Helm. But he said a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in town dis­trust Obama be­cause they think he is pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the wel­fare of blacks and “illegal aliens.”

“Peo­ple think the gov­ern­ment is just not on the side of the white guy,” Orr said.

Bas­trop’s cur­rent mayor, Ken­neth Kes­selus, who also sup­ports Jade Helm, agrees. Kes­selus said the dis­trust is due in part to a sense that “things aren’t as good as they used to be,” es­pe­cially eco­nom­i­cally. “The mid­dle class is get­ting squeezed and they’ve got to take it out on some­body, and Obama is a great tar­get.”

Dock Jack­son, 62, an African Amer­i­can who has been on the Bas­trop City Coun­cil for 24 years, grew up when the town was still seg­re­gated. To­day, Bas­trop is 34 per­cent His­panic and 8 per­cent black, and a won­der­ful place to live, he said, a place where the races gen­er­ally get along.

But the Jade Helm back­lash has been a “red flag” that our county “still has a lot of things they need to come to terms with,” Jack­son said, in­clud­ing the anger and dis­re­spect be­ing di­rected at the pres­i­dent.

At a re­cent fam­ily re­union at a Bas­trop com­mu­nity cen­ter, Mark Peter­son, who is black, said he has been “shocked” by what he views as racist un­der­tones in much of the ob­jec­tion to Jade Helm.

“What I hate to hear most is, ‘We want to take our coun­try back.’ This is still your coun­try. Where did it go?” said Peter­son, 42, a tech­nol­ogy man­ager for a fi­nan­cial firm in Austin. “If it were any other pres­i­dent but Obama, it would not be an is­sue.”

Jade Helm’s trou­bles started with a map, re­leased by the mil­i­tary, which de­picted the area of oper­a­tions. It showed seven south­west­ern states col­ored red for “hos­tile” (in­clud­ing Texas) and blue for “per­mis­sive” (in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia). The map sent the con­spir­acy-minded into over­drive.

At the public hear­ing this spring, mil­i­tary spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Las­to­ria ex­plained that those des­ig­na­tions are part of a fic­tional sce­nario: Jade Helm is in­tended to sim­u­late U.S. Spe­cial Forces help­ing re­sis­tance fight­ers re­store democ­racy in an imag­i­nary coun­try. The op­er­a­tion’s logo, which fea­tures a Dutch wooden shoe, is meant to rep­re­sent an­tiNazi re­sis­tance in World War II Europe.

Las­to­ria pa­tiently an­swered ques­tions for nearly three hours, ex­plain­ing that while Jade Helm would in­volve 1,200 troops across seven states, no more than 60 would be train­ing in Bas­trop County. The Texas op­er­a­tion would be con­fined to mil­i­tary bases— in­clud­ing Camp Swift, a large Army Na­tional Guard base in Bas­trop — as well as pri­vate prop­erty where the mil­i­tary had se­cured the landown­ers’ per­mis­sion.

“All ser­vice mem­bers take an oath to sup­port and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion of the United States, and we put our lives on the line ev­ery day to up­hold that oath,” he said. “So for peo­ple to come up with ir­ra­tional ideas and try to as­so­ciate them with the United States mil­i­tary, it does our troops a dis­ser­vice.”

The hear­ing failed to tamp down the para­noia, how­ever. El­li­son, the GOP chair­man, said “the fear fac­tor is jus­ti­fied.”

Obama “doesn’t take na­tional threats se­ri­ously enough,” El­li­son said, tick­ing off Obama’s poli­cies to­ward Rus­sia, Iran, Cuba and the Is­lamic State, as well as illegal immigration across the U.S. south­ern bor­der and the deadly at­tack in Beng­hazi, Libya.

“What he views as alarm­ing in­stead is con­ser­vatism,” El­li­son said, al­leg­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has used the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice to at­tack the tea party and other con­ser­va­tive groups, been hos­tile to gun own­ers, is­sued what con­ser­va­tives con­sider an illegal ex­ec­u­tive or­der to avoid de­port­ing illegal im­mi­grants, and “been com­plicit in stir­ring ri­ots” in racially charged sit­u­a­tions in Fer­gu­son, Mo., and Bal­ti­more.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has a history of at­tack­ing Texas” on is­sues from ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards to en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to Oba­macare, he said. “It’s not that much of a leap to be­lieve that he would try to em­ploy the mil­i­tary like he does the IRS.”

Oth­ers sus­pect Obama wants to es­tab­lish mar­tial lawto can­cel the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and ex­tend his term in of­fice. Terry Ware­ham, head of the Bas­trop County Tea Party, said she fears that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion might de­lib­er­ately in­sti­gate vi­o­lence be­tween sol­diers and Tex­ans as a pre­text for es­tab­lish­ing mar­tial law.

“We’re not against the mil­i­tary. This com­mu­nity is very sup­port­ive of the mil­i­tary,” Ware­ham said. “But who’s the com­man­der in chief of the mil­i­tary?”

A ‘toxic’ pol­i­tics

Some in Bas­trop dis­miss the talk of mar­tial lawas the delu­sional rant­ings of saucer-eyed loons. But oth­ers see it as the log­i­cal out­come of the Texas po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, where they say the state’s Repub­li­can lead­ers have ea­gerly stoked dis­trust of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and es­pe­cially of Obama.

“They are try­ing to con­vince peo­ple the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is com­ing af­ter them,” said state Sen. Kirk Wat­son, a Demo­crat whore presents Bas­trop County.

Gov. Greg Ab­bott (R) has or­dered the Texas State Guard to “mon­i­tor” Jade Helm 15. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, has said he un­der­stands “the rea­son for con­cern and un­cer­tainty, be­cause . . . the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has not demon­strated it­self to be trust­wor­thy in this ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Carol Schu­macher, a Bas­trop artist whose prop­erty backs up onto Camp Swift, laughed when asked about the Jade Helm con­spir­acy the­o­rists.

“I think those peo­ple are crazy,” she said. “I’m more wor­ried about

them tak­ing over.”

Marine vet­eran Dave Coker at the Amer­i­can Le­gion post. “Are they com­ing to es­tab­lish mar­tial law? No,” he said. “Are they com­ing to do re­con­nais­sance? I don’t know.”

PHOTOS BY ILANA PANICH-LINSMANFOR THE WASHINGTON POST

A view of down­town Bas­trop, Tex., re­flected in a store­front win­dow.

City coun­cil mem­ber Dock Jack­son at the Texas Grill in Bas­trop. “I’ve never seen some­one as dis­trusted as this pres­i­dent,” he said.

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