WASHINGTON — A South Carolina congressman said Friday that five Muslim soldiers at Fort Jackson had been removed from active duty, and four of them discharged from the Army, in connection with an ongoing probe into alleged threats to poison food at the large South Carolina base.
Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said the soldiers' laptops had been seized and were being analyzed. Congressional officials with knowledge of the case said cell phones and Arabic writings had been confiscated as well.
In his first public comments on the case, Wilson said FBI forensics experts were working with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division in the probe.
"The initial investigation confirmed that (the five soldiers) had not made any effort to poison food and that allegations about their disloyalty were inaccurate," Wilson told McClatchy. "There was further investigation. I have not received any word of it being over. I think they would tell me."
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Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training facility, with 13 dining halls, is in Columbia, S.C., in Wilson's congressional district.
Wilson, who said Army officials had briefed him on the case and provided a written account, confirmed earlier reports that the soldiers at the center of the case were Muslims enrolled in "Lima 09," a program launched in 2003 to train Arabic and Farsi speakers.
Contrary to some previous accounts, however, Wilson said that all five military trainees were U.S. citizens from northern Virginia.
Wilson also disclosed for the first time that four of the Muslim soldiers had been "administratively separated" from the Army, a military designation that means they were discharged with neither honorable nor dishonorable status.
"If you don't succeed (in the Army), you can be administratively discharged without a court-martial and without a full military review," Wilson said.
The fifth soldier was removed from active duty and returned to the National Guard's jurisdiction in Virginia, Wilson said.
Congressional officials said three of the five soldiers had been sent to the National Guard unit based in the District of Columbia.
Concern over possible attacks by Muslims in the military has risen in light of the Fort Hood shootings in November.
Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army major serving as a psychiatrist, is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 others at the sprawling base outside Killeen, Texas. Hasan is an American Muslim of Palestinian descent.
Wilson, a former military lawyer who served as a senior U.S. Energy Department attorney under President Ronald Reagan, said the five soldiers were discharged because the initial investigation had uncovered instances of minor theft.
"They were stealing from other soldiers," Wilson said. "It was discovered that there had been petty crimes that were not related to the original allegations of food poisoning or disloyalty. The individuals were simply not trustworthy."
He said he didn't know why the Army and FBI investigation was continuing after the original allegations had been refuted.
Wilson said he'd known for two years that the Army intended to move the Arabic-language training program from Fort Jackson to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where the Army's Military Intelligence Corps is based. The move was completed last month.
"It made sense that Arabic- and Farsi-speaking personnel would be placed where we have our intelligence capabilities," Wilson said.
Wilson confirmed the Army's assertion that there was no connection between the linguistic program's transfer and the allegations against the Fort Jackson soldiers.
Patrick Jones, a civilian spokesman for Fort Jackson, said the ongoing investigation concerned only one of the five soldiers. Congressional officials said the same thing.
Jones said he didn't have enough information to confirm or deny Wilson's other claims about the case.
"The Army takes all threats seriously, which is why we're looking into this," Jones said. "The investigation is open and hasn't been closed out, but it's only in reference to one of the original five people."
Jones repeated earlier Army statements that there "was no credible evidence" to support the original allegations of threatened food poisoning.
Jones said some news reports had reported erroneously that the five soldiers were arrested or otherwise detained.
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