WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency created an intelligence service in Haiti in the mid-1980s to fight the cocaine trade, but the unit evolved into an instrument of political terror whose officers at times engaged in drug trafficking, U.S. and Haitian officials say.
U.S. officials say the CIA cut its ties to the Haitian organization shortly after the 1991 military coup against Haiti's first democratically elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Three former chiefs of the Haitian unit, the National Intelligence Service, known as SIN from its initials in French, are now on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of Haitian officials whose assets in the United States were frozen this month because of their support for the military leaders blocking Father Aristide's return to power.
The disclosure of the U.S. role in creating the agency in 1986 comes amid increasing congressional and public debate about the intelligence relationship between the United States and Haiti, the richest and poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Supporters of Father Aristide contend that the CIA is undermining the chances for his return with analyses skewed by a misplaced trust in his military foes.
The agency paid key members of the junta now in power for political and military information up until the ouster of Father Aristide in 1991. A review of the CIA's activities in Haiti under the Reagan and Bush administrations, based on documents and interviews with current and former officials, confirms that senior CIA officers have long been deeply skeptical about the stability and politics of Father Aristide, a leftist priest.
No evidence suggests that the CIA backed the coup or intentionally undermined Father Aristide. In fact, the agency has acted to help him at times, for example through a program that is now training bodyguards to protect him should he return to Haiti from his exile in the United States.
Though much of the CIA's activities in Haiti remains secret, the emerging record reveals both failures and achievements in recent years.
Having created the Haitian intelligence service, the agency failed to ensure that several million dollars spent training and equipping the service from 1986 to 1991 was actually used in the war on drugs. The unit produced little narcotics intelligence. Senior members committed acts of political terror against Aristide supporters, including interrogations and torture, and threatened last year to kill the local chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
On the other hand, U.S. officials said, one senior Haitian intelligence officer dissuaded soldiers from killing Father Aristide during the 1991 coup. The CIA also helped to save the lives of at least six Aristide supporters after the coup, evacuating them in a late-night rescue that involved the Navy's elite SEAL unit, officials said.
The CIA also had a mixed track record in analyzing the fall of the 30-year Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986. The agency's analysts did not foresee the political violence that led to the collapse of elections in 1987 and the 1991 coup.
But the analysts, contradicting the White House and the State Department, correctly predicted this year that the Haitian military would block Father Aristide's scheduled return in October.
One crucial source of information for U.S. intelligence over the years, according to two government officials, was Gen. Raoul Cedras, who leads the Haitian armed forces. The officials said he provided the U.S. government with reports critical of Father Aristide. The officials did not provide details from those reports. Nor did they say whether the general was paid.
The Duvalier years
In 1959, four years after Francois Duvalier rose to power, the corrupt dictator was threatened by a CIA covert operation in which the agency supplied arms to opponents plotting a coup, according to a 1975 Senate report. The plot failed.
On his death in 1971, Duvalier bequeathed his regime to his son, Jean-Claude, who received nearly $400 million in U.S. economic aid until a popular revolt toppled his government and he fled the country in February 1986.
Shortly afterward, the CIA created the Haitian intelligence service, SIN. The agency was staffed solely with officers of the Haitian army, which was already widely perceived as an unprofessional force with a tendency toward corruption. The stated purpose was stemming the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine through Haiti, a crucial transit point for drug traffickers.
The United States would gain information on Haitian military by creating the unit; the Haitian military would obtain money, training and equipment from the CIA.
Congress wasn't informed
In intelligence parlance, it was was a "liaison" relationship. The CIA does not normally report to Congress on such relationships, citing the sensitivity of other nations to disclosures of secrets. That reduces the role of congressional oversight.
SIN received $500,000 to $1 million a year in equipment, training vTC and financial support from the CIA, U.S. and Haitian government officials say. The money may have sent a mixed message, because Congress was withholding about $1.5 million in aid for the Haitian military regime at the same time.
By late 1988, the agency decided to "distance itself" from the intelligence service, a senior U.S. official said. But the ties continued until October 1991, just after the Sept. 30 coup against Father Aristide, he said.
Drug information sparse
The Haitian intelligence service provided little information on drug trafficking and some of its members themselves became enmeshed in the drug trade, U.S. officials said. One official who worked at the American Embassy in Haiti in 1991 and 1992 said he took a dim view of SIN.
"It was a military organization that distributed drugs in Haiti," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It never produced drug intelligence. The agency gave them money under counter-narcotics, and they used their training to do other things in the political arena."
"The money that was spent to train these guys in the counter-narcotics field boggled the mind -- half a million to a million a year," the official said. "They were turning it around and using it for political reasons, against whatever group they wanted to gather information on."
Three former chiefs of the Haitian intelligence service -- Col. Ernst Prudhomme, Col. Diderot Sylvain and Col. Leopold Clerjeune -- were named by the U.S. Treasury Department in a Nov. 1 order for seizure of their assets in the United States. The document named 41 people "who seized power illegally," helped anti-Aristide forces, or "contributed to the violence in Haiti."
Haitian officials say those SIN officers persecuted Father Aristide's supporters and used their CIA training to spy on them.
"They were heavily involved in spying on so-called subversive groups," an exiled member of the Aristide government said. "They were doing nothing but political repression. Aristide was one of their targets. They targeted people who were for change."