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.

Still, the political trenches of Twitter exploded this morning over the rumor's sudden debunking:

Ben Shapiro, the Breitbart reporter who published the original "Friends of Hamas" story, was immediately ridiculed:

Shapiro hasn't responded yet on social media, and his last story for Breitbart is about Joe Biden's "shotgun" quote, but he apparently stood by his reporting — not the information he reported — when confronted by the Daily News:

Reached Tuesday, Shapiro acknowledged “Friends of Hamas” might not exist. But he said his story used “very, very specific language” to avoid flatly claiming it did. “The story as reported is correct. Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure,” he said.

Update, 10:22 a.m. Eastern: Shapiro has responded in a story at Breitbart, headlined, "NY DAILY NEWS HACK POSITS HE'S SOURCE OF 'FRIENDS OF HAMAS,' LIES BY OMISSION":

Dan Friedman of the New York Daily News wrote a piece today suggesting that he was the inadvertent source of Breitbart News’ story on “Friends of Hamas” in early February. There’s only one problem. That’s false, and Friedman knew it was false when he printed the story. Welcome to the Obama media, where protecting Chuck Hagel and attacking any media who question Hagel is par for the course.

Shapiro explains — without, again, saying whether "Friends of Hamas" is a real group that gave money to Chuck Hagel — that his "Senate source" denies receiving the information from the New York Daily News.

A parody website quickly set up by Gawker's Max Read served as a coda to the morning's outrage:

A screenshot from the site: