International Man of Mystery
The Ex-CIA Agent And Current Convict Has Many Stories To Tell. Some May Even Be True.
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page C01
WHITE DEER, Pa.
Sitting in a stark white cinderblock room in Allenwood Federal Prison Camp, Edwin Wilson is telling stories about the good old days.
"I had a couple of villas that were very, very nice," he says. "I had Pakistani houseboys and I had Libyans working for me, typing up proposals in Arabic."
He's wearing a prison scrub shirt that looks as if it might have been dark blue in the distant past but has faded to gray. His hair is gray, too. But Wilson -- often described in newspapers as a "rogue CIA agent" -- looks surprisingly good for a 76-year-old man who has spent the past 22 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.
Tall and thin, he sports a neat white mustache that gives him the avuncular air of Walter Cronkite. Beneath his bushy white eyebrows, his eyes twinkle merrily as he tells stories of his wheeler-dealer days in the '70s, when he was an arms merchant with offices in Libya, England, Switzerland and Washington.
"Friday is a holiday in Libya, so I'd fly Thursday afternoon to Paris, then take the Concorde to Washington," he says. "Because of the time difference, I'd get to Washington before I left Libya -- Thursday afternoon. I'd go to the office on Thursday and Friday and work on my farm on Saturday. Sunday night, I'd be back in Libya. I was on a first-name basis with the stewardesses on the Concorde."
Of course, half the cons in prison tell stories about what big shots they were on the outside. But in Wilson's case, it's true, more or less. After leaving the CIA in 1971, he made millions in the arms trade, enough to buy a 2,338-acre farm in the tony hunt country of Northern Virginia, where he entertained congressmen, generals and CIA honchos, sometimes with drunken late-night hunting -- shooting deer from a truck equipped with a big aircraft searchlight.
But the fun ended in 1982, when Wilson was lured out of Libya in a sting operation and arrested in the Dominican Republic. In three highly publicized trials, he was convicted of gunrunning, selling 20 tons of C-4 plastic explosives to Libya, and conspiring to kill his prosecutors. By early 1984, at age 55, he was sentenced to 52 years in prison and his many enemies figured he'd never get out.
Wilson swore he'd been framed, that he was working for the CIA all along. Few people paid attention. Half the cons in prison grumble about being framed by somebody.
But Wilson spent 12 years prying documents out of the CIA and the Justice Department with endless Freedom of Information Act requests. Last October, his efforts paid off: Citing those documents, a Houston federal judge threw out Wilson's conviction in the C-4 explosives case, ruling that the prosecutors had "deliberately deceived the court" about Wilson's continuing CIA contacts, thus "double-crossing a part-time informal government agent."
Now, with 17 years cut off his sentences, Wilson is scheduled to be released from prison Sept. 14. Maybe that's why the old rogue's eyes are twinkling. He plans to move back to Washington and start a business helping companies maneuver through the federal import-export bureaucracy.
"I've lined up a couple of potential clients," he says, smiling.
"Ed looked like a real CIA street fighter," says former congressman Charlie Wilson. "He was big and strong and dark and sinister -- dangerous-looking."
Charlie Wilson is no kin to Ed Wilson, but the two were friends back in the '70s, when the Texas Democrat was dating a woman who worked in Ed Wilson's plush townhouse offices on 22nd Street NW.
"I used to go down there and listen to Ed's stories -- war stories and CIA stories," says Charlie Wilson.
The stories weren't always true -- the one about how he'd killed Che Guevara was pure balderdash -- but they were entertaining, especially when accompanied by Ed's good Scotch.
"He was a charming fellow and a great raconteur," the ex-congressman recalls.
Ed Wilson had come a long way. Born in 1928, he grew up poor on a farm in Nampa, Idaho. He worked as a merchant seaman, then earned a psychology degree from the University of Portland in 1953. He served in the Marine Corps in Korea, then joined the CIA in 1955.
As a CIA agent, he spied on European maritime unions before discovering his forte -- running shipping companies secretly owned by the agency. Posing as a businessman, Wilson arranged clandestine CIA arms shipments to Angola, Laos, Indonesia, Congo. Meanwhile, he was also hustling up non-CIA business -- and making good money doing it. He and his wife, Barbara, a real estate agent, used his profits to buy farm properties in Virginia.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company