Got news? Five soldiers arrested, really?

When I received this email alert yesterday I had strongly conflicting emotions, as a journalist.

This is one of those stories that makes a stark fact claim. This claim is either accurate or it is not.

If it is accurate, why in heaven’s name is it breaking at the Christian Broadcasting Network? Here is the blog item as it first came in:

CBN Exclusive: Five Muslim Soldiers Arrested at Fort Jackson in South Carolina

CBN News has learned exclusively that five Muslim soldiers at Fort Jackson in South Carolina were arrested just before Christmas. It is unclear whether the men are still in custody. The five were part of the Arabic Translation program at the base.

The men are suspected of trying to poison the food supply at Fort Jackson.

A source with intimate knowledge of the investigation, which is ongoing, told CBN News investigators suspect the “Fort Jackson Five” may have been in contact with the group of five Washington, DC area Muslims that traveled to Pakistan to wage jihad against U.S. troops in December. That group was arrested by Pakistani authorities, also just before Christmas. Coming as it does on the heels of November’s Fort Hood jihadist massacre, this news has major implications.

Now, stop and think about this. It is very, very hard for me to believe as a journalist that the source for this story — as his or her first news-coverage option — took this material directly to CBN, a niche-news site. Having the story break in this setting automatically labels it, and validly so.

Then there is the matter of the time element. The story claims that the arrest were made before Christmas. How long has the source been trying to draw attention to this alleged event? If the event happened, why was it ignored by the mainstream?

Again, either those arrests were made or they were not. That’s a news event, if it is true. It’s breaking news.

Now, in the wake of that CBN report we do have a short Associated Press item. Here is the tiny little story that ran this morning in the Washington Post, a paper that one would think would jump on a story of this kind:

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Army has been investigating five soldiers over allegations of food poisoning at its largest training base.

But Army spokeswoman Julia Simpkins said Friday no soldiers were ever in danger at the South Carolina base. Simpkins says an investigation continues at Fort Jackson, located outside Columbia. She said the investigation involved potentially threatening comments toward fellow soldiers.

On Thursday, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon said the investigation involved allegations that soldiers’ food was being poisoned, but no credible information to support the allegations was found.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said the investigation has been going on for almost two months. Garver said he was not aware of any arrests.

Again, look at the timing. We have Army quotes from today — Friday? — and from yesterday. Are those contacts in the wake of the CBN report?

Once again, please focus on the key facts. Notice that the CBN source says the five tried to poison the food and that AP quotes a military spokesperson as denying that the food was poisoned. The two statements do not contradict one another.

What in the world is going on here?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • BC
  • LizBN

    The link BC posted has the following longer quote:

    A local law enforcement official familiar with the reports who insisted on anonymity said Thursday that there was no attempt made to poison any soldiers, adding that a rumor started when several disgruntled soldiers shot their mouths off late last year. There was never any threat, nothing credible, he insisted.

    So law enforcement is also denying the existence of even a poisoning attempt, so at least those two sources do in fact contradict each other. Of course it’s hard to know who is lying or spinning.

    I’m inclined to think the source who went to CBN has an axe to grind and knew s/he’d find a sympathetic ear there despite the weak supporting evidence (the source has an intimate knowledge of the investigation but doesn’t know whether the suspects are in custody? and the government denies that there was any threat or that arrests were made?). It certainly would fit the profile of someone who thinks we should be much harder on potential Muslim terrorists in our midst and sees a failure to hyperventilate over all terrorism accusations as a dangerous result of the scourge of political correctness. :)

    If this really was just a set of barracks rumors started by some frustrated people, I don’t think it belongs in the news, and perhaps that is why the mainstream press didn’t jump on it. OTOH it could be a government cover-up that the media ought to be digging into, perhaps we’ll find out…

  • Jerry

    LizBN’s points are key. It’s unclear to me what is going on: a real threat or a rumor started deliberately by anti-Muslim bigots. Hopefully we’ll find out soon.

  • tmatt


    We do have a contradiction and clash on the facts now.

    After the series of revelations that followed Fort Hood, I think we do need to back off and see what is reported.

    CBN has followed it’s own story and the following jumped out at me:

    CBN News also spoke to a Department of Homeland Security official with knowledge of the investigation who wished to remain anonymous. The official confirmed that the investigation was ongoing and said that someone in the Lima 09 program overheard five Muslim colleagues talking about poisoning food at the base. The person then reported the men, who were brought in for questioning.

    The DHS official stressed that after the terrorist massacre at Fort Hood, the Army is taking a zero tolerance policy towards any potential threatening statements and is now extremely sensitive about any allegations in that regard.

    The zero tolerance policy reference strikes me as important and the kind of thing that — validly — people in the military might be arguing about.

    Clearly their is disagreement on how to handle discussions of these issues. Period. The delay since December is amazing.

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    I’m inclined to think that this investigation is a result of the recent zero tolerance policy, whether or not the attempt was a bluff, or something that was truly attempted. However, that the media wouldn’t report on it, even still, is bizarre. If, indeed, it was soldiers shooting off their mouths, it still should be taken seriously, much like bomb jokes are at airports. I guarantee you that had these been anti-abortion proponents joking about bombing an abortion clinic, it would have made the news before Christmas.

  • dalea

    It looks like a large part of the problem here is that the suspects never actually poisoned any food. They just ‘tried’ to do so. ‘Tried’ can cover a very large range of things from being caught pouring poison into food to talking about doing so. Some of which is illegal and some of which is not. The entire story is so nebulous and vague that I am surprized it is being reported at all.

    OTH, I have never heard any ex GI say anything good about military food. Perhaps a remark along the lines of: the food is so terrible that we could put poison in it and not affect the taste.

  • BC

    The SC newspaper, to which I linked, which is an on the ground source, and more credible than CBN, included this statement:

    “A local law enforcement official familiar with the reports who insisted on anonymity said Thursday that there was no attempt made to poison any soldiers, adding that a rumor started when several disgruntled soldiers shot their mouths off late last year. There was never any threat, nothing credible, he insisted.”

    See also the post by Donald Sensing, former head public affairs officer for the CID, for some perspective:

  • BC

    CBN has now retracted its claim that they were arrested; the headline and story now say they were merely “questioned.”

  • Dana

    Food service at Fort Jackson is provided by a civilian contract firm: the contract firm employees are not permitted to speak to basic trainees except for the necessary conversations concerning what the soldiers want for food. When my older daughter was in BCT, one of the DFAC workers was in trouble because a trainee engaged her in more extended conversation when he was trying to get cigarettes; the trainee himself was restarted. SPC Pico said that she had heard that the DFAC employee kept her job.

    09 Lima is a pre-Basic Combat Training program for recruits with valuable skills — normally being native speakers of a desired language like Arabic — to be brought up to speed enough in English to be able to pass regular BCT.

    At any rate, it would be pretty difficult for an 09 Lima to actually be able to poison the food supply at Fort Jackson. When I think back on some of the weird conversations I had back in college, heck, I could have been a terrorist or a conspirator, too! (One conversation concerned whether it was possible to trigger a tsunami that could wipe out San Diego by triggering a hydrogen bomb underwater.)

    By the way, the food at Jackson is really pretty good. And our younger daughter leaves for Fort Jackson on June 22nd.