Spy Stories

Edwin Wilson said he was still in touch with his former employer, the CIA, when he shipped explosives out of Houston to the Middle East. The CIA denied it. The CIA lied

The revelation that a former CIA agent was running around Libya wasn't good PR for the agency, but no one could deny Wilson had been part of the Company. An Idaho farm boy, he became a spook after a stint with the Marines in Korea, where he suffered a leg injury. On a hop to D.C., he told his story to a stranger who gave him a number to call if he ever needed work. Wilson did call, and next thing he knew, he was taking a battery of tests, the last of which involved a lie detector. When asked if he'd ever engaged in a homosexual relationship, Wilson became livid.

“I just remember the time on the ship when a guy in the middle of the night reached up and I had to take care of him,” he says, making clear his abhorrence for same-sex relations.

Even though Wilson still didn't know exactly what he was applying for, he was sure he'd failed the test. He was wrong. From 1955 to 1971 he had a variety of assignments for the CIA, working security for the U-2 program and infiltrating the labor movement by means of a Master's program at Cornell. But it was in Special Ops that he found his niche, setting up proprietary companies that enabled the agency to wheel and deal without attracting too much attention.

Let's say Country X wants to procure some intelligence equipment, so it asks the CIA for help. The agency would be happy to oblige, at the very least to keep the Soviets out of the equation, but at the same time it knows Country Y will get really pissed if it ever finds out. No problem. Just have a corporation that's, ahem, completely unaffiliated with the agency make the deal.

Wilson has always had a knack for making money — he graduated college with ten grand in his pocket, thanks to summers spent running grain harvesters through the Idaho farm country — and setting up cover companies was a natural fit for the man who would become an arms dealer. After leaving the CIA, he was recruited for a top-secret Navy operation known as Task Force 157, where he worked from 1971 to 1976.

Wilson set up several companies for Task Force 157 and began hauling coal to Europe. He tried to give the profits back to the Navy, he says, but accounting wasn't equipped to handle the funds, so he wound up using the cash to hire more people. One of his biggest projects involved measuring the pull of gravity along the coasts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This information was crucial for figuring out the desired trajectory of a missile fired from a submarine. As a cover, Wilson outfitted his ship with equipment for measuring oil deposits, a move that ultimately proved profitable.

“Actually, the thing made enough money by selling the information to the oil companies to pay for it,” he says. “Worked out good.”


C-4 is a highly malleable explosive capable of taking a bullet without going off, making it one kick-ass weapon. It can be sliced, twisted and shoved into any crevice, and once set off by a detonator it expands at a rate of 26,400 feet per second. All it takes is an ounce to blow open an airplane window. You can stick a dab in an envelope and tear off a pen pal's face. When stored properly, it lasts up to 20 years.

On October 12, 1977, a demolitions expert named Jerome Brower arranged for 856 five-gallon cans to be loaded onto a chartered DC-8 at Houston Intercontinental Airport. The cans were labeled as oil-drilling mud, and inside each there were three or four inches of the brown-gray gunk. Underneath the mud, however, was white-gray clay, C-4, 21 tons in all, the largest known private shipment in history. Its destination was Libya, where Edwin Wilson had set up a one-stop shop for Qaddafi's regime.

Wilson imported handguns and detonators to Libya. He brought over retired Green Berets to train the country's commandos. He helped arrange land-mine-clearing operations. He says every deal was done with the implicit permission of the CIA, primarily through conversations he had with Theodore Shackley, the agency's associate deputy director for operations. The CIA looked the other way, he says, in exchange for having an inside man.

Those deals gave him incredible access, he says. “Plus I made a lot of money out of it.”

Wilson primarily dealt with Libya as a broker, using his CIA training to make shipments disappear, but there was one instance when his involvement was particularly hands-on. In 1978 several units of the Ugandan army mutinied and bolted to Tanzania, prompting despot Idi Amin to declare war on his southern neighbor. Amin invaded the northern province of Kagera and soon realized he needed help, so Libya responded with 3,000 troops, which was far from enough, since, as Wilson says, “the Tanzanians whipped everybody.”

Libya needed its troops out, so it contracted Wilson, he says, to hop on a 707 and fly down to drop off supplies and scoop up soldiers. Upon landing, Wilson told the pilot to keep the engine running while he handed food through the passenger plane's small doors. “All of a sudden, nobody's taking the food from the door,” he says, “and I can't figure out what's wrong, so I grab an AK and I tell the pilot, ‘Don't you leave without me or else.'” And that's when Wilson exited the plane and saw the soldiers tearing apart the packages and chowing down. They were too famished to even bother unloading the rest of the cargo.

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