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Reporter says joking comment sparked rumors about Hagel and Hamas

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, shown here testifying, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be Defense Secretary. A reporter says a joke he made sparked a false rumor that Hagel accepted speech money from a group called Friends of Hamas.

A Washington reporter revealed Wednesday that a joking comment he made to a congressional aide unwittingly sparked a false rumor that Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel accepted money from a group called Friends of Hamas for a speech.

Dan Friedman, who works for the New York Daily News, said he could not have imagined that his attempt at humor would fuel a claim that would spread across the Internet and “could have doomed” Hagel’s chances.

In a column on the paper’s op-ed pages, Friedman detailed how he was looking into allegations that Hagel was hostile to Israel when he called the anonymous Republican aide on Feb. 6  and posed a question: Had Hagel given paid speeches to any questionable groups like “Junior League of Hezbollah in France” or “Friends of Hamas?”

He said he followed up with an email reminder of the type of detail he was looking for: “Did he get $25K speaking fee from 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,” the reporter wrote.

The aide, however, apparently didn’t get the joke. By Friedman’s account, his source mentioned the query to colleagues and the information somehow ended up with Ben Shapiro, who authored a Feb. 7 post on the conservative site Breitbart.com with the headline: “Secret Hagel Donor? White House spox ducks question on ‘Friends of Hamas.’

The item was picked up by other conservative media, but Friedman said he didn’t get wind of the growing rumor until Sunday when he saw a story questioning whether an organization called Friends of Hamas even exists.

He said that when he called Shapiro, he said his story was accurate because he was told Hagel had not turned over documents on overseas money he received because a group purportedly called Friends of Hamas was on the list – regardless of whether that information was accurate.

In a post Wednesday, Shapiro blasted Friedman and denied that it was Friedman’s inquiry that sparked his story.

“Our Senate source denies that Friedman is the source of this information,” he wrote. He quoted the source as saying, “I have received this information from three separate sources, none of whom was Friedman.”

He said Hagel could settle the question of whether Friends of Hamas is real by releasing his records.

Democrats have scheduled a vote on Hagel’s nomination – which was delayed by a Republican filibuster last week – for Feb. 26.