For the past week or so, Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has been dogged by the rumor — originally reported on February 7 by the conservative website Breitbart.com — that he accepted money from a group called "Friends of Hamas," referring to the Palestinian resistance group classified by both the U.S. and Israel as a terrorist organization. There is zero evidence that such a group even exists, but it wasn't until Wednesday morning that the origins of the rumor were finally revealed. Today a New York Daily News reporter claimed that, during an interview with a single unnamed Republican aide, he made up a name to ask a hypothetical (and hyperbolic) question, thereby turning "an obvious joke" into a false rumor:
Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”? The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.
But the idea was taken seriously, and the Republican aide repeated the question as fact to some of his colleagues, who passed it off to conservative media. After it surfaced on Breitbart.com, the "Friends of Hamas" allegation spread to The National Review and other conservative outlets. (By the next day, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was treating "Friends of Hamas" as a legitimate concern: "You know, I saw that information today, also, and that is more and more concerning.")
This isn't the first time that Breitbart's thinly sourced reporting has been treated as truth. As The Atlantic Wire reported in January, the NRA cited an erroneous Breitbart report during a TV spot claiming (falsely) that Sidwell Friends — the D.C. school attended by both of President Obama's daughters — is protected by armed security guards.