Aristide’s File: A Fight in the Hall of Mirrors : Intelligence: Releasing CIA information that may not be true did not help Clinton’s Haitian policy--and the agency works directly for him.

<i> Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)</i>

A Central Intelligence Agency report classified “Secret"--meaning only just sensitive enough to be classified at all--claims that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, elected president of Haiti in 1990, and deposed by the military in a bloody coup nine months later, is crazy. We know this because the CIA gave a copy of the report to members of Congress a week ago, and a few sketchy details were leaked to the media.

According to the report, based on CIA files which are, in turn, derived from unknown sources, Aristide was hospitalized for manic depression in Canada, in 1980, and treated with drugs. Manic depression is one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses, and treatment for it with drugs would be routine. The report also claims that Aristide, though Haiti’s only democratically elected leader, is not really committed to democratic principles, and that he was responsible, during his brief time in office, for urging his followers to murder opponents by a method known as “necklacing"--putting an automobile tire around the victim’s neck, dousing it with gasoline and igniting it. It is possible that all, some or none of these claims are true.

Aristide, from exile in Washington--where he awaits a return to power in Haiti whenever President Bill Clinton’s economic blockade convinces the military to step aside--says none of the CIA claims are true and challenges the agency to produce a doctor or prescription in evidence. A White House spokesman insists Aristide is “rational and responsible” and the President is committed to his return.

These claims and counterclaims are typical of hardball in the nation’s capital, where issues often come down to personalities, and opponents always attack a target where he or she is most vulnerable. Anyone who ever took a course in logic will remember the technique--as ancient as it is disreputable--under its Latin term, argumentum ad hominem, or argument against the man. Socrates is broke, drinks too much and is henpecked by his wife; therefore he cannot be trusted when he says knowledge of virtue is innate.

In political combat, secret information is best, so it’s no surprise that opponents of Clinton’s Haitian policy should exploit a secret CIA report. What is unusual is that the agency, which is in the business to support the President, should have meekly handed to Clinton’s enemies a report bound to cause trouble for his policy.


The agency may claim, correctly, that it is required to answer congressional inquiries truthfully--but its history is studded with episodes of forgetfulness and stonewalling. Remember the Banco del Lavoro affair, where the CIA lost files proving that the bank’s chief officers in Rome knew about illegal loans to Iraq. Intelligence agencies are nothing if not politically sensitive. Not even the fabled Virginia, who inquired about the existence of Santa Claus, would doubt the CIA officer who surrendered the Aristide report knew exactly what he was doing.

Does this mean the CIA, under its new director, R. James Woolsey, has slipped its mooring and is following a policy of its own? Or that Woolsey can’t control rogue intelligence officers? Both have been claimed of previous CIA directors. President Richard M. Nixon, for example, often complained that the CIA had its own arms-control policy.

But nothing of this sort seems to be happening now. The CIA officer who carried the Aristide report to Capitol Hill appears to have been acting on his own. And, in a separate incident, the CIA has placed itself firmly in the President’s corner in the traditional style--helping him defend an appointment. The locus of contention is the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has refused to pass a budget appropriation for the intelligence community until the President withdraws his nomination of Morton H. Halperin to be assistant secretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping.

This dispute has an antique air. Halperin was once a White House assistant to Henry A. Kissinger on foreign policy. During the height of the paranoia that afflicted the Nixon Administration, Halperin’s phone was tapped by the FBI in an attempt to identify the source of leaks to the press that undermined the President’s policy on Vietnam. When Halperin learned of the taps, he was furious, launched a lawsuit against Kissinger for ordering the taps, left the government and gradually developed into an effective opponent of all covert action by U.S. intelligence agencies. As such, he was a figure of some suspicion to the CIA.

All these hard feelings have resurfaced in the fight over Halperin’s nomination. The Senate Armed Services Committee, convinced Halperin is some sort of anti-American leftie, has asked the CIA for its files on Halperin--to which the CIA replies it has no such files. What files can the committee be talking about?

According to CIA officers, now retired, the Senate committee wants whatever the CIA has got about a 1977 trip Halperin made to Britain, to testify in behalf of Philip Agee. Agee, a rebellious former CIA officer considered by the agency as an outright defector to the Soviet Union, was fighting a deportation hearing in Britain. One of the Home Office charges against Agee was that he threatened national security by meeting with “foreign intelligence officers” in Britain. This it presumably knew from round-the-clock surveillance of Agee, undertaken as a friendly gesture to the CIA.

Halperin met with Agee and, the Senate Armed Services Committee appears to think, with the “foreign intelligence officers.” Whatever the British knew about this--which would have included a record of Halperin’s every move on British soil--would have been shared with the CIA. Is it possible that the CIA may have retained something on paper about Halperin? Yes, Virginia, there is a Halperin file.

But the agency, which harbors little institutional warmth for Halperin personally, nonetheless, is on the President’s side here and, one way or the other, has found a safe formula for denial in the fine print. Halperin’s nomination and the intelligence appropriation remain bottled up--but at least everyone knows Woolsey is still working for Clinton.

What about the Aristide file? Letting go of it is somebody’s effort to sandbag the former Salesian priest, but how much credence should we place in the file itself? A former CIA officer says it is a classic example of a CIA Long-Distance Psychological Assessment--an attempt to read a man’s character based on publicly available material. The “Secret” classification is justified solely by the fact it was compiled by the CIA--not its reliance on classified sources. The claims about Aristide are all old news, known to anyone who has followed his career.

This technique is relatively new. The earliest, and likely still the best, example is the psychological profile of Adolf Hitler prepared for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II predecessor, by Harvard professor Walter C. Langer. Published 25 years after the war, as “The Mind of Adolf Hitler,” the study was based on more than 1,000 pages of previously published accounts, interviews with refugees from Nazi Germany and Hitler’s memoirs. The result was a fascinating, lurid, often incredible account of uncertain utility that made a prediction that proved dramatically on target--Hitler would commit suicide, rather than be taken alive.

The truth is that psychological assessments are what intelligence agencies do when they haven’t got anything better to do. Every world leader who has posed some sort of serious political problem for the United States in the last 45 years has been the subject of a similar study. It is safe to say the CIA found every last one of them as unstable as Aristide--and some a great deal more so.

“Crazy,” of course, is not a medical term, but the overweening egotism, the chronic suspiciousness, the sense of being above the law, the histrionic anger or cold withdrawal, the slights never forgiven, so common in those who make a profession of politics, are what ordinary citizens call crazy. Is it conceivable that Aristide, seen up close, would appear to be as bizarre or unpredictable as the average U.S. senator? The possibility does not strain belief. Does the CIA really know what makes Aristide tick? That question would be easy to answer--if the report were not secret.