On February 7, Breitbart News's Editor-at-Large Ben Shapiro published an explosive-looking story under the headline "Secret Hagel Donor? White House Ducks Question on 'Friends of Hamas.'" Quoting "Senate sources," Shapiro claimed that crucial documents on Hagel's "foreign funding" might be kept from the Senate Armed Services Committe because "one of the names listed is a group purportedly called "Friends of Hamas."
It was a short item, three paragraphs, the third paragraph consisting of White House assistant communications director Eric Schultz blowing off Shapiro. It caught fire on the right in no time. "That is quite the accusation," wrote Moe Lane at RedState. "All they have to do to debunk it is to have Hagel reveal his foreign donors." In the National Review, Andrew Stiles reported that "rumors abound on Capitol Hill that a full disclosure of Hagel’s professional ties would reveal financial relationships with a number of 'unsavory' groups, including one purportedly called 'Friends of Hamas.'" Arutz Sheva and Algemeiner, conservative pro-Israel news organizations, ran versions of the story based 100 percent on links to the Shapiro original. On February 7, radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewed Sen. Rand Paul about the Hagel nomination and pushed him on the "Friends of Hamas" story.
HH: Let me bring up one piece of information that Ben Shapiro at Breitbart put out today, which is one of the foreign funders behind Senator Hagel that he has not yet disclosed formally is something called Friends Of Hamas. If that is in fact true, Senator, would that lead you to vote against Mr. Hagel?
RP: You know, I saw that information today, also, and that is more and more concerning. With each day, there are new things coming out.
Paul has since come out against cloture on the nomination. Mike Huckabee, on tour in Israel last week, got asked about "Friends of Hamas" at a press conference. "If it proves true the rumors of Chuck Hagel's having received funds from Friends of Hamas," said the 2008 presidential candidate and current Fox News host, "if that's true then on its face that would disqualify him." On Fox Business, Lou Dobbs interviewed National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy about the Hagel quandary, and "Friends of Hamas" came up again.
MCCARTHY: There was a report that came out last week—not confirmed yet, but we're [i.e., the White House] also not denying it very vigorously—that one of the groups behind the speeches may have been an outfit called Friends of Hamas. That is not going to—
DOBBS: That has a ring to it, doesn't it?
Here's the problem: There's no proof that "Friends of Hamas" actually exists. At best, it's an organization so secret that nobody in government has thought to mention its existence. At worst, it's as fake as Manti Te'o's girlfriend. The Treasury Department, which designates sponsors of terror, has done so to many charities tied to Hamas. "Friends of Hamas" is not among them. The State Department doesn't designate it, either. And a bit less holistically, a Lexis search for the group reveals absolutely nothing.
I've been unable to find any Senate staffer who knows where the "Friends" rumor came from, and Dave Reaboi, communications director for the (generally conservative) Center for Security Policy, shared my confusion about the alleged group. "Looking back to the 1990s, there were several groups (some affiliated with Holy Land Foundation, some not) that functioned as fund-raisers," he said in an email. "I wouldn't put it past these people to refer to it this way in private, but I doubt highly that they'd actually call a legit group 'Friends of Hamas.'"
That's probably why nobody has formed a group by that name, and why, after the Atlantic Council released a list of funders, "Friends of Hamas" was nowhere on it. The point of the accusation is that Hagel has criticized Israel, so it's only natural to ask if he's receiving laundered terror money. As the Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney put it in the Washington Times:
At this writing and absent the requested disclosure, it cannot be determined whether Mr. Hagel is literally associated with the “friends” of a designated terrorist organization. The mere fact, though, that it seems entirely plausible — given the nominee’s record of hostility toward Israel and his affinity for its enemies (including Hamas' longtime sponsor, Iran) — his refusal to make the sort of disclosure expected of all Cabinet appointees should be the last straw for Senate Republicans and Democrats alike.
But the "Friends" accusation goes further than that. It supposes that a pro-terror group exists, and further supposes that the non-existent group would back Hagel somehow. This morning I wrote Shapiro to clear up the accusation. "Have you found any more proof that this group exists?" I asked. "Is it just shorthand for some people who might support Hagel, or a real group?"
"The original story is the entirety of the information I have," he said.
(Many thanks to Emma Roller for some help on this item.)