WASHINGTON – A controversial U.S. military training exercise known as “Operation Jade Helm" rolls out this week across several southwestern states -- but a group of wary citizen watchdogs will be keeping an eye on them.
Pete Lanteri, a former Marine now living in Arizona, told FoxNews.com that volunteer members he's helped organize will be on the ground as part of a newly formed surveillance campaign called “Counter Jade Helm.” A product of mounting suspicions across western states over the exercise itself, the group has been set up to locate, track and observe U.S. soldiers – Green Berets, Air Force Special Ops, Navy SEALs -- training across the Southwest.
The three-month military exercise kicks off Wednesday. Lanteri played down the notion that the "counter" campaign could lead to conflict.
“We’re not paranoid tin-hat wearing freaks,” Lanteri told FoxNews.com. “We’re not going to be out there confronting people or holding signs.”
Rather, Lanteri and his volunteers will be in plain clothes, in plain sight and armed with only cell phones and video cameras, he says.
He plans to travel to central Texas over the weekend to help kick off the “Counter Jade Helm” project. He said California, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, Florida and Utah also are among the states participating in the counter-missions; there have been conflicting reports about which specific states Jade Helm will be in, though the operation appears to concentrate in the Southwest.
“I did this because A: I believe in monitoring what the government does and B: I see this as a training opportunity,” Lanteri, who has spent a decade working on the Arizona-Mexico border, said.
Lanteri’s operation quickly gained momentum after the military announced it would carry out lengthy military exercises across the Southwest.
Many, like retired Kerrville, Texas, sheriff’s deputy Eric Johnston, wanted answers on why the soldiers would be there. Johnston, who will run surveillance teams in central Texas, told the Houston Chronicle he wasn’t even sure why the military exercises were being held.
For its part, the U.S. military said it trains on tough southwest terrain because it best replicates conditions where special operations soldiers are likely to find themselves, and said this type of training helps the military “stay ahead of the environmental challenges faced overseas.” The Pentagon has said the exercise "poses no threat" to civil liberties.
Locals weren’t buying it.
As word spread about the pop-up training camps, theories took shape in the absence of actual information.
Texans, in particular, feasted on colorful conspiracy theories that, thanks to the Internet, went viral -- including one that involved a supposed plan to convert old Walmart stores into death camps and another about a plot to round up and remove political dissidents. There also was speculation about the name, Jade Helm, and a secret link to China.
Worries went into overdrive when a map surfaced that labeled the Lone Star State as “hostile territory.”
The Pentagon rejected the "wild speculation," and Lanteri said he does, too.
“I tell the conspiracy people, 90 percent of what you read is b-s,” Lanteri said. “The media is freaking people out.”
But apprehension grew so much over the military drill that the Army sent a spokesman to Bastrop, Texas, to allay fears. Despite assurances from the feds that nothing nefarious is at play, hundreds of Texans phoned Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and demanded answers.
In April, the Republican governor gave the Texas State Guard the green light to “monitor” federal troops. His office declined to go into detail about what that might entail or how much it would cost.
GOP 2016 presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reportedly “reached out to the Pentagon” about Operation Jade Helm. Cruz’s office did not return requests by FoxNews.com for additional details this week.
In May, Rasmussen Reports conducted a national poll that found 45 percent of voters are concerned the government will use military training operations to impose greater control over the states. Among those who oppose military exercises in their state, 82 percent believed it was part of a government push to exert more power at a state level.
Lanteri says aside from the “conspiracy nut jobs,” there have been others who genuinely feel that the military may be up to something not quite right. He says it’s their right as U.S. citizens to be able to question motive and look for answers.
“Ronald Reagan said to trust and verify, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.