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Howard Altman: How Alex Jones helped pave the way for the Russian attack on election 2016

The InfoWars website linked to a story about a Tampa commando conference, including this photo, to make its baseless case that military exercise Jade Helm 15 was a conspiracy by President Barack Obama to round up dissidents. [Times files]
The InfoWars website linked to a story about a Tampa commando conference, including this photo, to make its baseless case that military exercise Jade Helm 15 was a conspiracy by President Barack Obama to round up dissidents. [Times files]
Published May 11, 2018

It was interesting to read the other day that Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force four-star general who went on to run the CIA, NSA and serve as principle deputy director of the Department of National Intelligence, believes the controversy over a 2015 military training exercise in the United States helped pave the way for the Russian information operation in the 2016 presidential election.

I made the same point back in December as a guest speaker at a gathering here in Tampa, the NATO-U.S. Special Operations Command Joint Senior Psychological Operations Conference.

Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe as part of a book tour, Hayden said controversy about the Jade Helm 15 training exercise was exploited by Russians trying to sow division in the American public.

"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," Hayden said on Morning Joe, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman. "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."

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Just to recap, Jade Helm 15 was a military training exercise, held in 2015 across states including Florida, in which commandos and conventional forces prepared for the kind of urban warfare that military planners have been bracing for. Think the bloody battle to retake Mosul in Iraq earlier this year.

RELATED COVERAGECommandos to show off capability at Tampa conference

The argument I made to a room full of the world's top practitioners of information operations was that by trying to convince people that Jade Helm 15 was instead a military plot to take over the country, radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones shaped the information battlespace through his InfoWars website in a way that benefited the Russians.

By taking bits and pieces of real information, including a 2014 story I wrote about a demonstration that international commandos put on at a Special Operations conference in Tampa, Jones and his minions constructed their delusional narrative.

But while delusional, it was enough, Hayden noted, for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to make sure the commandos weren't pulling off the dirty deeds Jones swore they would.

Seeing the confusion and mistrust sowed by InfoWars, albeit on a small scale, the Russians were emboldened to conduct their information operation against the 2016 presidential election — an effort on their part to sow confusion and mistrust on a far grander scale.

RELATED COVERAGEDon't buy all the conspiracy theories about Jade Helm

The Russians, Hayden said, were not just observers of the InfoWars delusion. Echoing the reporting of Clint Watts, a former infantry officer, FBI agent and executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Hayden said a Russian army of online bots helped amplify the discord.

Their information operation against the 2016 election succeeded on a grand scale. Our government is still paralyzed by an ongoing investigation into whether the campaign of Donald Trump colluded with the Russians. Meanwhile, the ideologic fissures in an already divided nation have been deepened as a result.

There was, of course, nothing really groundbreaking in my observation. The Russian activities were classic psychological operations. If you want to really visualize it, I suggest watching Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, which first aired three days after I was born.

Nor is the concept of "fake news" even new. Ben Franklin used fake news, concocting propaganda stories about murderous "scalping" Indians working in league with the British King George III to whip up anti-royal fervor among the colonials.

But the theme of the Tampa conference was "Fake News: Identification, Susceptiblity and Inoculation." So I thought it important, from my vantage point as a newspaper reporter, to point out to the audience that what is often now termed fake news is either something people don't like to see written or broadcast about themselves or honest errors in facts, something we all make.

The less we understand that, the easier it is to exploit the already war-fogged information battlespace.

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The Pentagon has reported no new casualties in ongoing operations. But the Puerto Rico National Guard has released the names of the victims of the WC-130 aircraft crash, which occurred May 2 near Hilton Head Airport in Savannah, Georgia.

Maj. José R. Román Rosado; 1st Lt. David Albandoz; Senior Master Sgt. Jan Paravisini; Master Sgt. Jean Audriffred; Master Sgt. Mario Braña ; Master Sgt. Víctor Colón and Master Sgt. Eric Circuns; Senior Airman Roberto Espada.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman