WASHINGTON -- Amid mounting speculation that the United States is moving closer to an invasion of Haiti to oust its military rulers, the U.S. special envoy on Haiti said yesterday that an invasion was not imminent, but that the United States was prepared to take action to protect the thousands of Americans there.
In an interview on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," William H. Gray III said that the fate of Haiti was of "vital interest to the United States," but added: "The United States is not contemplating an imminent invasion of Haiti."
While stressing that sanctions must be given time to work as the administration tries to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, he repeated President Clinton's warnings that "we don't rule out any option, including the military option."
Other senior officials said that the tide of Haitians fleeing the country by boat in recent days dramatically illustrated the shortcomings of the current policy.
In five hours of meetings on Friday, Mr. Clinton and his top national security advisers discussed whether the administration should speed its planning for a military invasion, senior officials said.
Other officials said that Mr. Clinton could decide at any moment to order an invasion and that such a decision would be made both quickly and secretly.
Speaking on the same program, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that although the Pentagon opposed military intervention, "within the State Department and the White House, they are clearly making plans toward an invasion." He added, "I think it would be a terrific mistake."
Senior officials say that they believe the refugee problem should not be used as the basis for an invasion to oust the military and restore Father Aristide, who was overthrown in September 1991, to power.
Mr. Gray laid out yesterday a different justification for an invasion: the protection of U.S. citizens living in Haiti.
"The president has a responsibility to protect American lives, and we have an embassy there with staff, and, in light of the escalating human rights violations and the repression, which is really the driving force behind these refugees' leaving, there is great concern that we must be prepared to protect American citizens," he said.
A number of lawmakers have told the White House not to undertake any military action within two months of the November elections. In addition, Mr. Clinton will be the host at a meeting of Latin American leaders in Miami in December, and White House officials said that they did not want the event to become a postmortem for a Haiti invasion.
If those constraints hold and the administration wants to take military action, Mr. Clinton has to decide whether it would be better to invade before Labor Day or after Christmas.
For the moment, policy makers are focused on persuading other countries to receive Haitians fleeing by boat and on moving faster to prepare other processing centers. The administration also has intensified discussions with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to help find ways to resettle Haitians.
About 7,000 Haitians have fled Haiti in the past two weeks,
severely straining Coast Guard rescue missions. The refugees are taken either to a ship off the coast of Jamaica or to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they can make formal applications for asylum.