U.S. Army special ops drills begin under cloud of Texas suspicion

By Jon Herskovitz
The headquarters of the Bastrop County Republican Party are seen in Bastrop, Texas July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jon Herskovitz

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. Army drills to train special operations forces for conflicts overseas began on Wednesday in several states including Texas, where fears of military overreach prompted the governor to ask the State Guard to monitor the exercises.

The Jade Helm 15 exercises run through Sept. 15 on public and private land with about 1,200 troops training in an area that sprawls for more than 1,000 miles. It was the first time the Army has undertaken such large-scale special ops drills, military officials said.

They will allow soldiers to "further develop tactics, techniques and procedures for emerging concepts in Special Operations warfare," U.S. Army Special Operations Command said.

The exercises had an unintended consequence when they were announced earlier this year: elaborate conspiracy theories from a small but vocal groups of people who are deeply suspicious of the federal government.

"Everyone needs to be worried all the time, with the Hitler wan-a-be in the whitehouse," Texan David Childers wrote in a social media discussion about the drills.

Fears mushroomed across right-wing blogs, with some theorizing the military will launch psychological operations to infiltrate society. Others maintained tunnels would be built to move troops and arms for surprise attacks on civilians.

A financial crisis will be cooked up that leads to nationwide chaos and then a call from Washington for troops on American streets to restore order, they said.

Responding to the worries, Republican Governor Greg Abbott said he would deploy the State Guard to monitor the drills to protect civil liberties and property rights.

His April announcement was met with criticism from Texas Republican leaders who said suspicion of our own troops must stop and an editorial from the Dallas Morning News that called the Abbott move "cringe-worthy."

The governor's office this week said the monitoring will consist of a handful of Texas Guard members meeting drill organizers on a regular basis at a Guard base in Austin to discuss what has gone on and what is planned.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command has tried to reassure the public about the drills.

"All we want to do is make sure our guys are trained for combat overseas. That's it," Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lastoria, a spokesman for Army Special Operations Command, said at a town hall in Bastrop, Texas, in April.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Doina Chiacu)