WASHINGTON -- CIA allegations to Congress that exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide underwent psychiatric treatment in a Canadian hospital are false, the Miami Herald has learned.
The allegations slowed the momentum of the U.S. campaign to return Father Aristide to power, fortified the Haitian leader's critics and embarrassed President Clinton, who supports Father Aristide, by placing him at odds with CIA experts.
The Herald obtained a letter from Father Aristide authorizing it to retrieve any records for psychiatric treatment for him at the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal, mentioned by CIA officials to Congress. The hospital categorically denied it had ever treated Father Aristide.
Behind the CIA's blunder, say lawmakers and intelligence experts close to the case, may be the agency's close ties with some Haitian military officers, a right-wing bias within its own ranks or a mere sloppiness in the handling of raw intelligence data.
Whatever the case, the results were disastrous to Father Aristide.
"The net effect has been the public character assassination of President Aristide based on flimsy second- and third-hand information," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, who was briefed at length by CIA Director James Woolsey.
When Mr. Woolsey and the CIA's chief Latin American analyst, Brian Latell, went before Congress in October to brief lawmakers on the crisis brewing over Mr. Aristide's scheduled return to Haiti, they repeatedly asserted that the president had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment in Montreal during the early 1980s, members of Congress said.
Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative North Carolina Republican familiar with the CIA profile of Father Aristide, ignited the debate on Capitol Hill by calling the priest a "psychopath" who would execute his political enemies and return to his past criticism of U.S. policies.
Messrs. Woolsey and Latell declined repeated requests for comment on the results of the search. Mr. Woolsey, appearing on the Larry King Live show Tuesday night, defended the CIA assessment of the Haitian leader. But he appeared to back away from parts of it by saying that Father Aristide "would be a very reasonable choice to support" as leader of Haiti.
A White House spokesman, asked to comment on the Herald's report, said the Clinton administration finds Father Aristide "rational and reasonable" with "the best interest of his people at heart."