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Chuck Hagel Rumormongers Have Media Sippin' On Some Weak Tea

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CHUCK HAGEL ISRAEL
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At the moment, the sturm und drang over the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has current Republican senators executing a filibuster over his appointment, with further "specific intelligence about the Benghazi attack" put forward as the key demand to break their delay. As is typical with the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, territorial pissings play a part in the foofaraw, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grousing that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) got a letter from the White House and McCain and his colleagues did not. Happy Valentine's Day!

But even as the tactics designed to delay Hagel's nomination reach their bath-salts apotheosis, the opposition research getting passed around on the Right is now being spooned from the bottom of a bowl of awfully thin gruel. Which doesn't mean that the media doesn't still believe it can find actual substance there. No, rather than respond with the listlessness some of these weird Hagel oppo-efforts more or less demand, too many people remain willing to boogie down on the tatty dance floor of unfounded or uncorroborated claims.

The peak of pique, I think, was reached Thursday, when the Washington Free Beacon dressed up some "not exact word-for-word" quotes transcribed at a 2007 discussion Hagel gave at Rutgers University by Some Guy With A Blog.

There are two pegs on which this story hopes to rest. First, Fox News recently reported that Hagel "did not disclose at least two recent speeches on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict" after being asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee to furnish "any 'formal speeches' he had given since the start of January 2008." So, there's a slavering curiosity for these missing curios, but as this Rutgers rap session was in 2007, it falls outside the committee's request.

Of course, the more exciting thing about this rumor-and-sigh that the Free Beacon (which, I'll remind you, very publicly holds out that it thinks it's weird when other news organizations take it seriously) has presented as "a contemporaneous report of the event," is that according to Some Guy With A Blog, Hagel allegedly said at the 2007 event that "The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office." Reached for comment by the Free Beacon, Some Guy With A Blog said, "If I wrote it, then that’s what happened at the time." That is, I guess, considered something worth reporting? (For what it's worth, Some Guy With A Blog is a Hagel supporter.)

At any rate, we have some "not exact quotes" that a guy wrote down in some 2007 notes, and this now forms the basis of a "news story" that still calls out for at least the level of scrutiny of that strange thing you heard about Sarah Palin joining Al Jazeera as an on-air pundit.

It's totally within the realm of possibility that this story is get-able or that someone could suss out the real quote and tie the whole thing around Hagel's neck. But for the time being, everyone seems to have accepted in advance the Free Beacon's premise that Hagel asserted that the State Department is "controlled by Israel" (which is not what "adjunct to" means, actually!) and are sitting around on Twitter talking about how bad this would be for Hagel if it turns out to be true.

It's hard to argue that it wouldn't be bad for Hagel if bad video does emerge of him doing something bad at this event. But, you know, what if video emerges proving that Hagel is D.B. Cooper? That could sure get sticky, too.

This is all, at the very least, zeitgeisty:

Weigel, as it happens, has been pulling double-shifts in the saltmine of stuff that could, speculatively, be really bad for Hagel if it's true. This morning, he hunted down and slayed Breitbart News' unicorn-story about Hagel receiving donations from a group called "Friends Of Hamas." The story -- originally treated as the high-test oppo by the Right, which swapped it hither and thither until it got put in front of Sen. Rand Paul -- turns out to be more weak tea, and for good reason.

As Weigel reports:

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.'"

At best, we are talking about the ultimate in super-shadowy Hamas-supporting groups that successfully stayed completely off everyone's radar until that time they totally screwed up and donated money to Chuck Hagel, for some reason. Classic mistake!

The whole "Friends Of Hamas" flap isn't even the silliest stuff you'll find out there in the world of Hagel agonizing. Here's Bill Kristol weirdly trying to make some sort of case against Hagel for once identifying writer Aaron David Miller, who is Jewish, as Jewish. "He’s Jewish," said Hagel, in the midst of praising a book Miller wrote on the Middle East, adding, "He worked in the State Department," among other rather humdrum facts about the author. "Isn't there something creepy and disquieting about that interjection?" Kristol writes.

I mean ... no. No. Hagel is telling people that this author has a set of insights that come from a range of relevant perspectives and that people should pay him heed, and presumably money, for his book. I find it awfully strange to find that "disquieting," but then, I'm not some creep weirdo bent on putting every banal statement Hagel ever made on trial.

There is also the whole "Iran endorsed Hagel" story, which originated from this Reuters report. The article merely collected a statement from Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast: "We hope there will be practical changes in American foreign policy and that Washington becomes respectful of the rights of nations."

This is not, strictly speaking, an "endorsement." This is, at best, what is called "wishful thinking" on the part of Mehmanparast. At worst, this is called "trolling," like that time al Qaeda endorsed Mitt Romney, or that time al Qaeda endorsed John McCain, or that time al Qaeda endorsed George W. Bush. Pro tip: You weren't actually supposed to take those things seriously.

All of these thin, unfounded stories to date seem little more than an attempt to get actual reporters off on some addled scavenger hunt, perhaps at the expense of discussions of truly relevant matters (like, say, how a war critic like Hagel would prosecute the conflict in Afghanistan, what his vision of the Pentagon budget should be, whether or not a Vietnam vet like Hagel retains any affinity with a military whose culture has changed by leaps and bounds in the intervening years since his service).

And if I put on my Brendan Nyhan hat briefly, I suppose I could express some concern that the efforts undertaken to debunk these various claims only offer reinforcement of the originals. Yeah, Dave Weigel debunked that "Friends of Hamas" claim, but doesn't that only prove that the "Friends of Hamas" claim needed to be taken seriously?

After all, as Jonathan Bernstein points out, you can debunk until you're blue in the face if you want -- it will never cost the original promulgators of rumors and claims from the outskirts of Outland even a slight hit to their reputations:

Assuming that Weigel is correct, here's what's going to happen. The person who concocted this thing will almost certainly will not be set back on his career within the GOP-aligned media in any way. Most of the folks who cited this thing -- Hewitt, Styles, Dobbs, McCarthy, and more -- will not issue corrections; some, in fact, will continue using it. No one within the GOP-aligned press will be any more skeptical of the next such story to emerge from the same place, or more hesitant to pick up stories from there. Nor will those who bought and spread the story be held accountable by anyone within the conservative movement, or suffer anything at all to their reputations within it.

Bernstein writes, "It is absolutely not true that everyone within the conservative press are frauds, hacks, and charlatans." Too true! And to anyone who bags the actual Hagel quote from his Rutger's talk, I say, hats off.

As it turns out, Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski actually got the text of Hagel's speech at Rutgers (it was on Lexis-Nexis), and while the Q&A section (where all this "the State Department is controlled by an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office" stuff comes from) was unavailable, the speech as transcribed finds Hagel suggesting "reopening a U.S. consulate in Tehran" and opining that "the U.S. could find ways to work with Iran, based on 'clear-eyed' common interest."

All of which you can imagine the Free Beacon, you know ... making hay with, had they attempted to report out the story instead of publishing this raveled sleeve of almost-quotes and pretending they'd landed it. But it's important to remember that the Free Beacon is manufacturing "trollgaze" and calling it "combat journalism," mostly for what are known as "lulz."

In the meantime, Bernstein also reminds us that "all too often the incentives there do not encourage good work," and every time someone goes out and pens a concern-troll tweet about a half-assed story, they are further incentivizing the madness and validating the unproven premises of rumormongers.

Think about it. Your "bad thing will sure be bad if bad thing actually happened!" tweet is barely a flicker above the cognitive level required to notice, "I am capable of autonomic nervous responses!" Which, if you weren't, would probably be bad -- but hey, I'm just speculating.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

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