Late on a breezy afternoon, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of the Republic of Haiti, descended from his limousine on Capitol Hill and, accompanied by his entourage of Haitian aides and American lawyers, made his way slowly into the Capitol to meeting room S-116, where a group of senators and staff assistants awaited him. They were from the foreign relations committee and they were there to discuss strategy.
It was October 20, ten days before President Aristide had been scheduled to return to the National Palace in Port-au-Prince and reassume the office from which the Haitian military had expelled him more than two years before. But the agreement—the so-called Governors Island Accord, signed in New York on July 3—was unraveling: nine days earlier, on October 11, the troopship USS Harlan County, carrying more than 200 American “combat engineers and technical advisers” who were to train and “professionalize” the Haitian military, had been greeted at Port-au-Prince harbor by scores of angry civilians shouting nationalist slogans and brandishing automatic weapons. After a day of limbo, during which the Haitian army made no move to restore order, the Clinton administration recalled the ship from Haitian waters.
Two days later, on October 13, the United Nations Security Council voted to reimpose sanctions on the de facto military regime in Port-au-Prince and, two days after that, President Clinton sent a half dozen American warships to enforce what was, in effect, a blockade on Haiti. By Wednesday afternoon, even as President Aristide sat in the meeting room on the first floor of the Capitol, sipping coffee and urging the senators to “support his return to Haiti” by keeping up the pressure on the officers in Port-au-Prince, an iron band of foreign warships had encircled his tiny country and begun, inexorably, to squeeze.
That October 20, even as President Aristide was discussing Haiti with the senators in room S-116, three floors up, in room S-407, another group of senators was discussing Aristide. Or rather, they were listening as one Brian Latell, a thirty-year veteran of the CIA and the agency’s national intelligence officer for Latin America, presented the intelligence community’s “psychological profile” of the forty-year-old Haitian president. Though the briefing was held under conditions meant to ensure the utmost secrecy—room S-407 is one of the Capitol’s “secure rooms,” designed with elaborate “counter-measures” to prevent eavesdropping—a number of its participants made sure that, within twenty-four hours, much of what the intelligence analyst had said had become front-page news.
Senator Jesse Helms, who had requested the briefing from the Senate floor earlier on Wednesday—during a speech in which, among other things, he had denounced President Aristide as a “psychopath”—took to the floor again on Thursday and, having offered assurances that the technical sophistication of room S-407 ensured that “nobody can bug it; nobody outside the room can know what was said,” proceeded to alert his fellow senators and the world at large that “the CIA yesterday confirmed …