Neocon smear of Hagel ricochets around web before ‘Atlantic’ article strikes it down

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Sen. Hagel

Whatever your thoughts are on the now official nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, one thing’s for sure: he deserves to get a fair hearing (both in public and in the Senate), free from smears. But the neoconservative machine doesn’t quite work like that, and it’s in overdrive.

One of the latest examples of the odious neoconservative smear campaign waged against Hagel is a claim that, in the midst of a dispute over whether to close the USO port in Haifa, Hagel said “Let the Jews pay for it” in a meeting with Jewish leaders. The context for the claim is that, according to the Washington Free Beacon story, Hagel led the “charge” to shutter the USO port in Haifa, Israel. The USO is a quasi-governmental support organization for American troops.

Here’s more from the Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo:

Hagel, who served as president and CEO of the World USO from 1987 to 1990, expressed intense opposition to the USO Haifa Center during a tumultuous 1989 meeting with Jewish leaders, according to multiple sources involved in the fight to keep the post open.

“He said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it’,” said Marsha Halteman, director for military and law enforcement programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which led the battle to keep USO Haifa operational.

Hagel’s campaign to close the storied USO port struck many observers, including the U.S. Navy and congressional leaders, as misguided. Those same critics argue today that Hagel’s animosity toward the Jewish state leaves him unsuited to be the nation’s next defense secretary.

“He essentially told us that if we wanted to keep the USO [in Haifa] open—and when I say ‘we’, he meant ‘the Jews’—he said the Jews could pay for it,” said Halteman, who recalled being taken aback by the comment.

I would normally ignore these smears, but this one has gotten some traction. It first traveled throughout the neoconservative ecosystem, bouncing from Commentary to the Weekly Standard. But it has also hit more respectable websites, like The Atlantic Wire, not to mention Elliott Abrams’ repetition of the smear on the website of the Council for Foreign Relations (in a repost of a Weekly Standard piece).

Websites like The Atlantic and Mediaite (where the smear also appeared) should be skeptical about uncritically quoting reports such as these, which seek to place Hagel beyond the pale before his confirmation hearing.

The first reason to question Kredo’s claim is that the source is dubious. The single source that claims Hagel made a reference to “the Jews” paying for the USO port is an operative from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), one of the premier neoconservative shops in Washington. Hagel’s skepticism of Israeli military force (in Lebanon) and his insistence that he is an American senator, not an Israeli one, surely rankled JINSA. So the group has a vested interest in defeating Hagel, and it’s clear they’re intent on smearing the man. And JINSA itself is not so reliable or trustworthy. For instance, one of the group’s early leaders was Stephen Bryen. As a Right Web profile of Bryen notes, “In his book The Armageddon Network, Michael Saba, a former director of an Arab-American organization, alleged that in 1978 he saw Bryen, then a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offer ‘Pentagon documents on the bases’ to officials of the Israeli government during a meeting in a Washington restaurant.” Another early leader in JINSA, Michael Ledeen, was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and the false claims of Nigerian yellowcake uranium in Iraq.

More importantly, the thrust of Kredo’s story is wrong. Steve Clemons’ reporting in The Atlantic makes that clear. Kredo wrote that Hagel “led the controversial charge to shutter the port during his tenure with the organization [the USO].”

But Clemons spoke with Israelis involved with the discussions over the USO port in Haifa and reports that when Hagel took over the USO, he “reviewed all of the USO facilities – including the one in Haifa – and decided to keep the Haifa operation open, expanding it in fact, while shuttering ten others in the Middle East region.” Clemons also notes “there is ample evidence that [JINSA’s] charge against Hagel is at best unsubstantiated by evidence and at face value completely untrue.”

All of this seems to be lost on Abrams. In his Weekly Standard-turned-Council on Foreign Relations blog post, he mentions that “the Israeli who headed the USO site, Gila Gerson, was later given a prize by the U.S. Navy for her work. There seems little doubt that USO Haifa was immensely successful and valued.” But Clemons went to speak with Gerzon (which is how it’s spelled in the Clemons post)–and what she tells him totally contradicts Kredo’s reporting, and thus, Abrams’ post.

Clemons asks Gerzon, “Do you remember Chuck Hagel trying to close the Haifa operation?” She bluntly answers: “No.” Gerzon also told Clemons that “it was an absolute gift of God and for our volunteers when Chuck Hagel came to Israel.”

So the long and short of it is that that Kredo’s and Halteman’s smear against Hagel is false. Perhaps the confirmation hearing will shed more light on this specific issue. But in any case, it’s a lesson in how easy it is to spread smears in the age of the Internet. And the outlets who laundered Kredo’s smear should look more closely the next time they decide to uncritically reprint a hatchet job like the Washington Free Beacon’s.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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