Jade Helm takeover was #FakeNews but plans for this counterattack were real

With everything we’ve learned about the ability of Russian bots to grossly amplify the reach of #FakeNews, we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this week’s revelation that the 2015 Jade Helm conspiracy theory was an early triumph of this toxic technology.

But before we make our jokes about tin foil hats and move on, we should recognize how such cyber chicanery can have a very real impact.

This part barely made headlines here, likely because it involved wingnuts in North Carolina. But in August 2015, the feds arrested three men who were building bombs, stockpiling guns and preparing to attack our government because of Jade Helm.

Back then, we were all busy rolling our eyes at Gov. Greg Abbott tasking the Texas State Guard with monitoring the U.S. military training exercises happening that summer in Bastrop County, while similar special ops training was held in several other states. But the notion of a martial law takeover by the U.S. military was not an obvious hoax to Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker and Christopher Todd Campbell — then 50, 41 and 30, respectively.

HOW WE GOT HERE: A timeline on Jade Helm 15

According to arrest affidavits, these men gathered the materials to make pipe bombs and explosive tennis balls covered in nails. They had dozens of guns, military-issue Kevlar helmets, body armor vests and handheld radios with throat microphones. They planned to ambush U.S. soldiers on a 99-acre camp in Clover, S.C., a town not far from Charlotte, N.C.

“According to (Campbell),” the warrant stated, “he and Litteral intend to booby-trap the camp and draw government’s forces into the camp and kill them.”

Thankfully that showdown never came. The owner of a military surplus store where the men bought their gear learned of their plot and alerted the FBI, according to the Washington Post.

Of course it’s possible Litteral, Barker and Campbell would have planned their attack even without the involvement of Russian bots. After all, the bots simply spread the conspiracy theory that was already out there. It was a real person, right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, who conjured the fever dream in March 2015 that Jade Helm, the multi-state military training exercise planned for that summer, was somehow something sinister.

RELATED: The Americans are coming! Jade Helm and the politics of paranoia

But as the conspiracy theory spread online with lightning speed, with a flurry of comments and shares that suggested legions of alarmed residents, real people took notice. And a handful of elected officials pandered to the paranoia.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, issued a statement in May 2015 saying “true patriots” had cause to be “legitimately suspicious.” That same month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then making his run for president, demanded answers from the Pentagon because “the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.”

I know Republicans had major differences with the Obama Administration. But I think we can agree Gohmert and Cruz didn’t exactly nail this one.

ALSO READ: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

In providing this week’s revelation about the Russian bots, former CIA director Michael Hayden helped us understand how the clearly ludicrous Jade Helm conspiracy theory spread so far and wide, and how the success of this operation paved the way for Russian meddling in the social media chatter around the 2016 presidential campaign. And that’s troubling enough. But let’s not lose sight of the life-or-death stakes in this realm of Internet mischief.

Just over a year after the foiled Jade Helm counterstrike in North Carolina, a gunman walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, convinced it was harboring a child sex ring.

Fake News. Real danger.

Trump doubles down on a border wall, and a government shutdown looms

The border fence between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The border fence between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (The New York Times)

 

What are we to make of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who is embroiled in a child custody battle in a Travis County courtroom? His attorney wants us to believe Jones’ bombastic on-air persona is merely performance art – just for show, folks, that’s all. Jones, however, asserts no trickery is involved.

A far cry from President Trump, another well-known figure known for his crowd-pleasing bluster. You can count on Trump meaning what he says. Well, except for when he doesn’t.

Take for instance the president’s recent flip-flop on NATO, the trans-Atlantic alliance Trump called “obsolete” throughout the campaign and as recently as last month. The president declared then that NATO “doesn’t cover terrorism,” which isn’t true.

But earlier this month, as he stood with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump had a sudden change of heart. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” the president said, explaining that NATO made a change and now fights terrorism. The record says otherwise; as the Washington Post noted, NATO has been active in counterterrorism since 1980, even moreso since 9/11.

The newspaper has taken to calling Trump the “king of flip-flops.” Like the Post, a number of news organizations routinely chronicle the president’s many 180-degree turns on policy.

But there is one policy position where the president isn’t showing any signs of budging or flip-flopping – his vision of a border wall.

On Thursday Trump doubled down on one of his signature campaign pledges. He wants Congress to add money for a new wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to a massive spending bill, potentially forcing a government shutdown. As the Chicago Tribune reported:

Trump’s request, outlined in conversations with White House officials and in a memo from budget director Mick Mulvaney, calls for $33 billion in new defense and border spending — and $18 billion in cuts to other priorities, such as medical research and jobs programs.

RELATED: A border wall riddled with holes in logic 

RELATED: Why the border wall fences us in

A partial government shutdown would begin April 29 if the spending bill isn’t passed.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told The Associated Press that Democratic negotiators on the spending bill need to sign on to funding the president’s priorities, including a down payment on a border wall and hiring more immigration agents.

“Elections have consequences,” Mulvaney said. “We want wall funding.”
Mulvaney said the Trump administration knows many in Congress, especially Democrats, don’t like the wall, “but they lost the election.”

More Americans opposed (62 percent) than favored (35 percent) building a wall, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February.

A partial government shutdown is never popular and at least for now, it appears few in Congress share the White House’s desire to flirt with one, though some Democrats vow to oppose the wall and even some conservative Republicans object, though on fiscal grounds.

The Department of Homeland Security pegs the cost of a wall at up to $21.6 billion. Trump famously vowed throughout his campaign to make Mexico pay for the wall. That’s obviously not in the cards. Was it ever, really?

With the spectre of a government shutdown looming, some on Capitol Hill expect a bipartisan spending bill will emerge by next week’s end, and that a vote on funding for the wall will come in a separate spending bill later this year.

One thing is clear: Trump administration requests to fund the wall aren’t going away. The president is adamant about fulfilling his vision of a “big, beautiful border wall.”