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.
In 1971, Wilson quit the CIA to run shipping companies for a secret Navy intelligence organization called Task Force 157. By the time he left that job in 1976 to make his fortune in the international arms business, the gregarious Wilson had a network of powerful friends that included Pentagon officials, pols, retired generals and several CIA officials, including Theodore Shackley, the famous "Blond Ghost," who ran the agency's clandestine operations.
"Everything he did had the aura of the CIA," recalls Charlie Wilson. "Certainly he was working with CIA people. They'd come in when we were sipping Scotch at 6 at night."
Business Was Good
"Charlie Wilson said, 'Why don't we go down and see Somoza?' " Ed Wilson recalls, sitting in the prison visiting room. "So we flew to Miami to see Somoza, who was there with his mistress -- a fiery broad but not too good-looking."
The prisoner's telling stories again, this one from the late '70s, when Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was fighting the leftist Sandinista guerrillas who later overthrew him. Wilson drew up a proposal to provide mercenary soldiers for Somoza, then flew to Miami with Charlie Wilson and the congressman's girlfriend. They met Somoza and his mistress in a hotel, but when the dictator started dancing with the congressman's girlfriend, his mistress got mad.
"The mistress takes this goblet of water and she throws it in Somoza's face," Ed Wilson says, laughing. "He was pretty cool about it. He wiped his face off and said, 'It's kind of damp in here tonight.' "
Wilson never struck a deal with Somoza, but he soon found a better customer -- Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
"The reason I went to Libya," Wilson says, "is that Shackley asked me."
Shackley was an old friend and a frequent visitor to Wilson's farm. In fact, Shackley's daughter kept her horse there. Wilson says Shackley asked him to go to Libya to keep an eye on Carlos the Jackal, the infamous terrorist, who was living there. (Shackley is unavailable for comment: He died in 2002.)
"I missed Carlos but I hung around a bit," Wilson says. "They gave me contracts and I stayed till 1982, till I got arrested."
When Wilson arrived in the late '70s, the oil-rich Libyans were on a weapons-buying spree. Wilson got contracts to sell them army uniforms, ammunition, explosive timers and 20 tons of C-4 explosives.
"Please put this in there: None of that C-4 was ever used for terrorism," Wilson says.
In 1979, he arranged for an associate to smuggle four American pistols to the Libyan Embassy in Bonn, West Germany. Later, one of the pistols was used to kill a Libyan dissident there."That I feel bad about," he says.
But everything he did, Wilson claims, was designed to befriend the Libyans so he could obtain information to pass on to Shackley and the CIA. "I was buddying up to them," he says.
He was also making millions of dollars. He got a contract to supply the Libyans with foreign aircraft mechanics and a crew of former Green Berets, who helped train the Libyan army.
"I made good money on that," he says. "The net profit was about a million dollars a year."
In 1980, one of the Green Berets traveled to Colorado and shot a Libyan dissident in the head. Wilson says he knew the Libyans were trying to hire his Green Berets for hit jobs.
"They were always trying to recruit my people to do that," he says. "I had to fire people who talked to them about doing illegal things."
He tells a story: When he learned that one former Green Beret was planning to become an assassin, he fired the man. The Green Beret left Libya, returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and walked into a tavern. He slapped a $100 bill on the bar and ordered drinks for the house.
"Then he took out a pistol," Wilson says. He forms his own right hand into a pistol -- the index finger serving as a barrel -- and he points it at his temple. "And he blew his brains out."
As he pantomimes the gruesome action, Wilson is smiling broadly.
Brought to Ground
"That's a great story," says Larry Barcella when he hears that tale recounted.
Barcella, a former federal prosecutor, is the man most responsible for putting Wilson in prison. He likes Wilson's barroom suicide tale but he doesn't believe it. He doesn't believe a lot of what Wilson says.
"His story is getting better with age," says Barcella, now in private practice in Washington. "He's like a herpes sore -- he just keeps coming back. God, when did I first come across Ed?"
It was in 1977, when tales of Wilson's adventures in Libya began to surface. Kevin Mulcahy, a former CIA man recruited by Wilson, informed the FBI about Wilson's explosives deal with Libya. And Rafael Quintero, an anti-Castro Cuban with CIA ties, told the agency that Wilson had offered him a million dollars to kill a Libyan dissident in Egypt.
Barcella, then an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, was assigned the case. At first he found it difficult to figure out whether Wilson was still working for the CIA.
"I interviewed scores of people who thought this was an agency operation," he says.
But Barcella kept digging and he came to believe that Wilson was using his past agency affiliation as cover. "He was playing people like a harp," he says.
In April 1980, Barcella obtained an indictment charging Wilson with shipping explosives and soliciting murder.
Eager to avoid trial, Wilson stayed in Libya, huddled in his seaside villa, running his businesses, grumbling about the lack of good Scotch in Libya and drinking a lot of flash, the local moonshine.
In 1982 Barcella dispatched Ernest Keiser -- an old Wilson crony with shadowy CIA connections -- to Libya. Keiser convinced Wilson that he'd arranged a deal with the National Security Council: If Wilson would run a spy operation for the NSC in the Dominican Republic, they'd arrange for his legal problems to disappear. (Keiser also sold Wilson an option on some property near Disney World.)
Desperate to escape Libya, Wilson flew with Keiser to the Dominican Republic, where he was arrested and put on a plane to New York.
"Nothing wrong with a little nonviolent government trickery," Barcella says, laughing.
Over the next two years, Wilson went on trial four times.
In Washington, he was charged with soliciting Quintero and other Cubans to kill a Libyan dissent. He was acquitted.
In Virginia, he was charged with illegally exporting an M-16 rifle and four pistols, including the one used to kill the Libyan in Bonn. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison -- later reduced to 10 years -- and fined $200,000.
In New York, he was charged with hiring a convicted murderer to kill Barcella and another prosecutor, plus six of the witnesses against him, and his wife, who'd filed for divorce. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, plus $75,000.
In Houston, Wilson was charged with illegally exporting the 20 tons of C-4 to Libya. His defense was that he had been working for the CIA. The prosecution responded with an affidavit from CIA Executive Director Charles Briggs, who swore that the agency had no contact with Wilson after 1972.
On Feb. 4, 1983, the jury began its deliberations but failed to reach a verdict: At least one juror believed Wilson might have been working for the CIA. On Feb. 5, the jury asked the judge to read the Briggs affidavit again. An hour later, the jury reached a verdict: guilty on all counts. Wilson was sentenced to 17 years, plus $145,000.
"After he was convicted of everything," Barcella says, "he finally called and said he wanted to talk to me."
They met at a U.S. Marshals office in Alexandria. Wilson told Barcella that he'd never plotted to kill him. Barcella didn't believe it. The plot, he says, had been recorded by a prison snitch wearing a wire.
"He said, 'Those guys were lying, they set me up,' " Barcella recalls. "I said, 'Ed, why lie? It was on tape.' "
Ten Years in Solitary
Facing 52 years in prison, Wilson was shipped to the super-max prison in Marion, Ill., and placed in solitary confinement.
He spent 10 years there -- "10 years locked down 23 hours a day," he says.
Meanwhile, his wife divorced him. His two sons cut off communication with him. The IRS seized his property, and the man who'd once been worth $23 million declared bankruptcy.
"You'd think that would break him but it didn't," says his brother Robert, a retired accountant living in Seattle. "He never did give up."
Instead, Wilson bombarded the CIA and the Justice Department with Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding documents about himself. The feds balked. Wilson sued and won. Slowly, over a decade, the documents began to trickle out and Wilson pored over them, searching for evidence that would help free him.
By 1996, he'd uncovered a Justice Department memo titled "Duty to Disclose Possibly False Testimony. " It described the CIA's Briggs affidavit -- which had helped persuade the Houston jury to convict Wilson -- as "inaccurate." Wilson filed a motion to overturn the Houston conviction, attaching the memo as evidence.
Federal Judge Lynn Hughes did not grant Wilson's motion but he did assign a lawyer to handle Wilson's case -- David Adler, a former CIA agent.
When Adler met Wilson in Allenwood, the lawyer told his client that he, too, had once worked for the CIA.
"He jumped up and pushed his chair across the room," Adler recalls, "and he started yelling, 'You people are trying to [expletive] up my case! Goddammit, you people think you can bury me but I'm gonna go down fighting!' "
A guard started toward Wilson. Adler waved him away.
"I let Ed rant and rave for a while," Adler recalls, "and then I said, 'Look, if I was here to [expletive] up your case, would I tell you I'm a former CIA officer?' "
After that, Wilson calmed down.
Under court order, Adler was permitted to sit in a locked vault at the Justice Department and read thousands of documents on Wilson. They didn't prove that the CIA ever asked Wilson to sell C-4 to Libya. But they did document more than 80 contacts between the CIA and Wilson during his arms-dealing days: Shackley asked Wilson to acquire a Soviet missile, and to find a retirement home for a Laotian general who'd worked for the CIA. Another CIA official twice asked Wilson to supply anti-tank weapons for "a sensitive agency operation." The agency proposed using Wilson to secretly sell desalinization plants to Egypt. And so on.
The documents also showed that, within days of the Houston trial, the CIA had informed the Justice Department that the Briggs affidavit was false. Lawyers at both CIA and Justice argued that they had a "duty to disclose" the false testimony to Wilson and the judge, as required by law. But they never did.
In 1999 Adler filed a motion to overturn Wilson's conviction because "the guilty verdict was obtained through the government's knowing use of false evidence."
In response, the Justice Department admitted that the Briggs affidavit was "inaccurate" but claimed that the conviction should be upheld because the CIA had never authorized Wilson's sale of C-4.
Last October, Judge Hughes, a Reagan appointee, threw out Wilson's conviction, denouncing the government's "fabrication of evidence." If the jurors had known about Wilson's 80 CIA contacts, Hughes wrote in a scathing 29-page decision, they "very likely would have believed Wilson's theory and acquitted him."
The Justice Department decided not to appeal Hughes's decision -- or to retry Wilson.
On the day Hughes issued his decision, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield released a terse statement on Wilson: "The CIA didn't authorize or play any role whatsoever in his decision to sell arms to Libya. That decision was his, and that is why he went to jail."
Asked recently to explain the nature of the CIA's connection to Wilson during his wheeler-dealer years, Mansfield said he'd have to think about that. An hour later, he called back with a statement.
"Edwin Wilson is full of [expletive]," he said. "If I were you, I wouldn't believe for a minute his attempts to justify his actions by blaming someone, or something, other than himself."
David Corn, author of "Blond Ghost," a 1994 biography of Shackley, has a different perspective on the Wilson affair.
"They framed a guilty man," he says. "I think he's a terrible fellow who got what he deserved, but they did frame him."
Just One of Those Things
"I'd like to give you a couple of documents," Wilson says.
He slides a stack of paper across the table -- legal documents, photocopies from law books, letters to various officials. His favorite parts are highlighted with yellow Magic Marker.
Wilson says the papers prove that under sentencing guidelines, he should have been released years ago. His lawyer, sitting next to him, doesn't agree.
"I'm not sure you're right about this, Ed," Adler says.
"This is as solid as can be," Wilson says, sounding a little testy. "I should have been out four or five years ago."
Adler shrugs. There's no point in arguing with Wilson. He concedes nothing and admits no blame. His position is simple: He did nothing wrong. All the charges against him were frame-ups. All the witnesses against him were liars. He spent 22 years in prison for nothing -- and the IRS stole his property while he was inside.
"It was just vindictive," he says.
He's happy to be getting out in September but he's a little worried about money.
"I'll have $1,600 a month -- $1,000 in Social Security and $600 from CIA retirement," he says. "That means I'll probably have $500 or $600 a month to spend on rent. That'll get me a bare-light-bulb apartment somewhere."
Is he bitter?
"It's really strange but I'm not bitter," he says. "It's just one of those lousy things you get hit by in life. I never look back. I look forward. It's been a terrible waste of time but there's no profit in being bitter. There's no profit in feeling sorry for yourself."
He looks serious. He seems sincere. Is it possible that the old rogue has become mellow and philosophical? Or is he just working a new hustle here?
Wilson taps his finger on his heart. "Deep down here, I knew I wasn't guilty," he says. "That helped. If I had gone out and killed somebody, I'd feel guilty, I guess. But I don't feel guilty over this."
His face is very somber. But not for long. A minute later, he's grinning, demanding a dozen copies of this article -- no, make that two dozen.
"You won't give me a free subscription to your newspaper," he says. "I gotta get something out of your cheap outfit."