The CIA once tried to intervene in Haiti's elections with a covert-action program that would have undercut the political strength of its current president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to congressional sources with firsthand knowledge of the incident.
But the CIA's effort was stymied when the Senate Intelligence Committee ordered the CIA to halt the program, under which the agency tried to channel money for the use of some of the candidates in the 1987-88 Haitian elections.
Aristide was not a candidate at the time but assailed the military-controlled process, calling for radical change and apparently worrying some U.S. officials.
Two current and former U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that the CIA developed a covert-action plan for intervention in Haiti's elections and that the plan was blocked in Congress. They insisted, however, that the purpose of the program had not been to oppose Aristide but to provide a free and open election and to help some candidates who didn't have enough money.
"We were engaged in covert action on behalf of the National Security Council," said one former high-level U.S. intelligence official who was directly involved in the covert-action plan and the dispute with Congress. "We were involved in a range of support for a range of candidates."
The story of the CIA's involvement in Haitian elections provides some of the backdrop for the episode earlier this month in which a senior U.S. intelligence official, Brian Lattell, characterized Aristide as mentally unbalanced. The comments were made in a closed-door briefing to members of Congress.
The CIA has made similar allegations in the past about Aristide, based on what officials say is a psychological profile of the Haitian leader. Aristide was elected Haiti's president by a landslide in December, 1990, but was ousted in a military coup after serving less than a year.
Asked last week about the CIA's involvement in Haiti and the dispute with Congress over covert actions there, Kent Harrington, CIA director of public affairs replied, "Our comment would be no comment on this one."
The CIA's negative assessment of Aristide's psychological stability complicated the Clinton Administration's Haiti policy by giving Republicans a rationale for trying to limit the extent of U.S. support for Aristide.
"It needs to be known that there is some history there" between the CIA and Aristide, said a source who was working in a senior position for the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time the CIA and Congress were fighting over covert operations in Haiti.
"There were those in the CIA who were not pleased with him (Aristide) in the past and don't want him to be successful now."
Aristide first came to prominence in Haiti as a proponent of liberation theology, which seeks to blend the teachings of Christ with a doctrine of political revolution by the poor against the established order. Liberation theology took hold not only in Haiti but among priests in poor parishes throughout many other Latin American countries.
Asked why the CIA might have sought to oppose Aristide, the congressional source said: "Liberation theology proponents are not too popular at the agency. Maybe second only to the Vatican for not liking liberation theology are the people at (CIA headquarters in) Langley."
Aristide was not a candidate in Haiti's 1987-88 elections. At the time, he was a charismatic priest with a strong following in the poorest slums of Haiti. He denounced the military-dominated election and called upon Haitians for a "real revolution" against the entire process.
Aristide's activities figured prominently in the elections and the American response to them, in which U.S. officials showed a strong antipathy to Aristide.
In a letter to Time magazine during the elections, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, the Ronald Reagan Administration's primary spokesman for Latin American policy, devoted most of his energies to attacking Aristide.
"The stark contrast between the Pope and the firebrand Aristide underscores the difference between responsible, constructive effort and strident negativism," Abrams wrote.
Abrams did not return two phone calls last week to his office at the Hudson Institute. A secretary said he was out of town. In an article in the Washington Times two weeks ago, Abrams criticized the White House for supporting Aristide, saying that the Clinton Administration was "repeating every error committed by the Bush Administration."
Opposing Aristide would have been in line with the Reagan Administration's overall policy in Latin America. With active support from then-CIA Director William J. Casey, the Administration sought aggressively to combat left-wing regimes, parties and leaders in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. The George Bush Administration took a less confrontational approach.
Intelligence and congressional officials gave the following account of the CIA's dispute with Congress over covert action during the 1987-88 elections:
At the beginning of the 1987 elections, the CIA may have already been operating in Haiti under an existing, previously approved covert-action program, according to a present and a former intelligence official. Any CIA covert operation must be approved both by the President and the congressional intelligence committees.
As the campaign began, the CIA was supporting or preparing to support particular candidates.
"This sort of thing doesn't go on every day," a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official said. "But there's nothing unusual about it. The idea was to enable some candidates to spend money on publicity and that sort of thing.
"The CIA didn't pick the candidates to support. These candidates were selected by the State Department. . . . There were multiple candidates. We didn't have any one candidate."
During the early stages of the election, some staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee paid a visit to Haiti. After their return, the committee demanded to know exactly what the CIA was doing and which candidates it was supporting.
Then-CIA Director William H. Webster refused to give the committee the names of the CIA-supported candidates. Finally, a compromise was arranged in which the CIA director would give the names only to Sens. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and William S. Cohen (R-Me.), then the chairman and ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee.
But the deal fell through. "They killed the program," a former U.S. intelligence official said. "It was one of the few times they ever closed us down. It was a bruising battle."
One high-ranking source working for the Intelligence Committee said the reason the CIA's covert-action program was killed was that "there are some of us who believe in the neutrality of elections."
The Haitian elections were supposed to be held Nov. 29, 1987, but they collapsed in violence when 34 people died on election day--some as they were standing in line to vote. In early January, 1988, a new ballot was held and the candidate favored by Haiti's military government won, but he was ousted later that year in a military coup.
Aristide had urged a boycott of the elections, saying, "The army is our first enemy." By helping to finance some of the candidates, the CIA apparently hoped to strengthen those candidates' position and to diminish Aristide's attempt to have a low turnout, which would have reduced the election's validity.
But in 1990, Aristide ran for president himself and won with about two-thirds of the popular vote.
Supporters of Aristide and some congressional sources have alleged that the CIA opposed the Haitian president and supported his principal opponent, Marc Bazin, in the 1990 elections.
But that allegation was denied by a present and a former U.S. intelligence official, each of whom knew of the covert-action plans in the 1987-88 elections.
In addition, a State Department official handling Haiti policy at the time of Aristide's election and a ranking staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time said they had no knowledge of any CIA effort to defeat Aristide in 1990. Both said that if there had been a CIA operation against Aristide that year, they would have known about it.
On Dec. 19, 1990, three days after Aristide's election, Bernard Aronson, the Bush Administration's assistant secretary of state for Latin America, congratulated Aristide on his victory and announced an increase in U.S. aid to Haiti.
After serving less than eight months as Haiti's president, Aristide was deposed in a military coup in September, 1991. Since that time, he has been living in the United States while waiting to return to Haiti.