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Chalabi Pals' Groupthink

Bush administration officials ignored the many warning signs surrounding the Iraqi exile leader.

June 03, 2004

The psychologist Irving Janis invented the word "groupthink" in 1972 to describe a process in which a group makes foolish choices. Each member of the group tailors his or her view to fit the consensus. Signs of groupthink include the ignoring of expert opinion, selective use of evidence and the illusion of omnipotence.

As the latest revelations about Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi indicate, something like this seems to have happened to the Bush administration. Chalabi, a key ally of the neoconservatives in the Defense Department who pushed for war, is being accused of disclosing to Iran that the United States had cracked its secret communication codes. Chalabi strenuously denies the allegation, as do his supporters, such as former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. Chalabi's lawyers say he's even eager to cooperate with the Justice Department.

The Times' Bob Drogin and Greg Miller have reported that none of Chalabi's contentions about Saddam Hussein's dire capabilities have been substantiated. And few administration officials should have harbored illusions about his nature and character. After his conviction by a military tribunal in 1992 in Jordan on charges of embezzlement, theft and forgery, Chalabi went on to play the Washington game skillfully, siphoning millions from the CIA in the 1990s to put together his exile Iraqi National Congress.

As the latest issue of the New Yorker reports, he compiled a disastrous record, failing in an attempt to topple Hussein militarily. No matter. Chalabi went on to set himself up as an expert on Hussein's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, telling Bush officials what they wanted to hear.

In the last month, the administration has changed its outlook on Chalabi, cutting off the monthly stipend of $340,000 to his organization and raiding his home. But this is only the beginning of the end of the sordid relationship. FBI counterespionage agents are correctly planning to question top officials at the Defense Department about who may have leaked to Chalabi the vital information about the cracking of Iran's code.

Iran, after all, is a far greater potential threat to U.S. interests than Hussein's Iraq was. Unlike Iraq, Tehran not only supports numerous terror groups but also shows every sign of attempting to construct a nuclear bomb that could directly threaten its neighbors, including Israel.

With the U.S. having turned on him, the unpopular Chalabi has at least a slim chance of rehabilitating himself among Iraqis as a kind of political martyr. If someone in the Defense Department indeed handed over top-secret information to Chalabi, he or she may not fare so well.

The price of groupthink is that, at some point, reality intrudes.

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