Special Operations forces from multiple countries were in Florida Wednesday, firing off hundreds of rounds and rappelling down the sides of buildings “as they attempted to rescue the mayor” of Tampa.
“The operation was, of course, an exercise,” the Washington Post reports, “but it was also a public spectacle for a force that has tried desperately to remain in the shadows despite now being at the forefront of America’s wars.”
The Tampa “spectacle” was far from the first such realistic military drill on American soil. Conspiracy theories swirled and then dissipated, for example, regarding last year’s Jade Helm 15 training exercises in seven states. While those exercises were largely held in sparsely populated areas of Texas and the Southwest, others have been in urban areas, and some of these have been cause for more controversy and confusion than the recent Tampa drill.
In the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, conspiracy theories about a controlled bomb detonation on the same day quickly emerged, before being reportedly exposed as confusion regarding the timeline of events and Twitter postings.
Also of particular interest were two individuals other than the Tsarnaev brothers seen in photographs taken near the scene before and after the explosion wearing backpacks and hats. “The prevailing conspiracy assumption is that they are military contractors who orchestrated the attack – not authorities present at the event for security,” the Guardian reported shortly after the bombing.
Despite the supposedly outlandish concerns of some online observers, though, the Boston Globe later reported that a drill – unnervingly similar to the attack itself – had in fact been planned for a similar time frame, and had to be cancelled because it resembled the April 15 incident so closely. From the Globe:
“Months of painstaking planning had gone into the exercise, dubbed ‘Operation Urban Shield,’ meant to train dozens of detectives in the Greater Boston area to work together to thwart a terrorist threat. The hypothetical terrorist group was even given a name: Free America Citizens, a home-grown cadre of militiamen whose logo would be a metal skull wearing an Uncle Sam hat and a furious expression, according to a copy of the plans obtained by the Boston Globe.
But two months before the training exercise was to take place, the city was hit with a real terrorist attack executed in a frighteningly similar fashion. The chaos of the Boston Marathon bombings disrupted plans for the exercise, initially scheduled for this weekend, forcing police to postpone. Now officials must retool aspects of the training.
‘The real thing happened before we were able to execute,’ said a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the planned exercise. ‘We’ve already been tested.'”
In the aftermath of the bombing and the confusion that followed, those suggesting that “crisis actors” were involved were ridiculed in the national media for saying things that were “not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.”
The Globe’s subsequent reporting showed, however, that officials planning Operation Urban Shield in Boston had in fact “behaved much like movie producers, recruiting students from Northeastern University and the Boston Police Academy to play the parts of terrorists and witnesses.”
The Globe story also poked holes in the argument that it would be impossible for government to stage a terrorist attack or fake attack, simply due to the number of people who would need to knowingly conspire and the impossibility of effectively compartmentalizing such an event.
“The participating detectives (…) would not have known they were being watched,” the article states. “They would only be told that they were responding to an urgent terrorist threat.”
Confusion and paranoia have not been the only public response to Urban Shield, which has not only operated in Boston. In fact, the elaborate drills, which are the work of the Alameda County, California-based Cytel Group, have faced some of the strongest reactions in their own backyard, where they have been met with protest.
In contrast, this week’s Special Ops drill in Florida met not with picketers, but with fawning fans. The Post reports that “some of the Special Operations troops came ashore, disembarking from their rigid hull inflatable patrol craft to a throng of people eager to take pictures with them.”
Despite what is apparently a growing tolerance and even enthusiasm for military drills on American soil and in American cities, Post reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff, himself a former marine, suggests that many in the military would view the Tampa display as unnecessary.
“According to Special Operations Command officials, the entire 30-minute operation took four days to plan, rehearse and execute,” Gibbons-Neff reports. “The preparation, for what many in the U.S. military would call a ‘dog and pony show,’ likely took time and resources from a community that is currently deploying at a rate not seen during the last 15 years of war.”