"Friends of Hamas" Revisited

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 20 2013 11:28 AM

"Friends of Hamas" Revisited

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Palestinian high-school students show off their skills during a graduation ceremony from a military school course organized by the Hamas security forces and the Hamas Minister of Education on January 24, 2013 in Gaza City.

Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, after seeing references to a group allegedly named "Friends of Hamas" hidden somewhere in Chuck Hagel's financial records, I did roughly 20 minutes of reporting to prove that the group did not exist. I checked the State Department's list of terror sponsors and the Treasury Department's list of terror-connected charities, then called Treasury to see whether a "Friends of Hamas" had ever appeared on their radar. It hadn't. I checked with a Senate source and with a source in a conservative foreign policy shop whose president had editorialized about "Friends of Hamas." Both sources were befuddled by the "Friends" claim.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

Following that, I checked with Ben Shapiro, the Breitbart.com editor and reporter who originated the "Friends of Hamas" meme in a short February 7 article titled "SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE SPOX DUCKS QUESTION ON 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS.'" In it, Shapiro reported that "Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively" of Hagel's "Friends of Hamas" problem.

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"Have you found any more proof that this group exists?" I asked Shapiro.

"The original story is the entirety of the information I have," he said.

Cut to today. Dan Friedman writes a funny op-ed for the New York Daily News, taking credit—accidentally—for the "Friends" theory.

On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?
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.

Friedman assumes that Shapiro's story, published one day later, was the result of a botched game of telephone. Here, normally, would come the part when Shapiro cleans up the mess. But no:

Friedman knew it wasn’t true when he wrote the piece. Our Senate source denies that Friedman is the source of this information. “I have received this information from three separate sources, none of whom was Friedman,” the source said. And I informed Friedman of that fact via phone and email. He ignored all that information.

Hang on—let's roll back the tape. Here's Shapiro on February 7:

On Thursday, Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed that one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called “Friends of Hamas.”

Here he is on February 20:

Our Senate source denies that Friedman is the source of this information. “I have received this information from three separate sources, none of whom was Friedman,” the source said.

How did multiple "Senate sources" become "our Senate source"? The industry standard for any story is two sources—you run with one, you might just be repeating a rumor. If only one source is spreading this story, and Shapiro gives him further anonymity to say he has "three sources," why shouldn't the reader assume that the source is lying to cover his flank? Is the source typing this up on a Jukt Micronics computer?

There's a larger, more boring problem with a lot of anti-Hagelverse stories. They are deductive. They assume an accusation—that Hagel might have called the State Department an "adjunct" to Israel's foreign ministry, because one person at a 2007 Hagel speech remembers that—is true, and demand that Hagel prove the rumor false. Instead of determining whether "Friends of Hamas" exists, something pretty darn easy to do holistically, Shapiro called the White House and asked whether the rumor was true. The White House didn't respond. He ran with the story, which he now calls (clip and save this phrase) "accurate and clearly caveated." As if adding a caveat—an acknowledgement that a story might have holes—is as good as reporting out the damn story. Sometimes, when you report it out, it falls apart.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.