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

“They had been pretty hungry,” he says. “So with a little emphasis I get the plane unloaded and I must've taken — I don't know how many people we had on that damn plane.”

Wilson was indicted on April 23, 1980, charged with shipping explosives and soliciting the murder of a Libyan dissident. The latter rap was the only one he wound up beating. Also indicted were two of his associates: Jerome Brower, the demolitions expert, and Frank Terpil, another former CIA agent turned arms dealer.

At the time Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Barcella didn't know exactly how much C-4 had been shipped, but Brower soon freaked out and fessed up to the whole amount. He eventually got off with a four-month sentence. Terpil fled to Lebanon, Syria and ultimately Cuba, where he's still said to live. Wilson stuck it out in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, farting around, playing tennis with oil workers. “I don't mean to be blasé, but I have fun where-the-hell-ever I am,” he says. “So I got along fine.”

Wilson did want to clear his name, however, so he agreed to a meeting with Barcella in Rome on July 7, 1981. It was a détente of sorts. Wilson would provide information on the Letelier assassination in return for not being arrested the minute he got off the plane. He also had some intel, including details on Libya's search for an atomic bomb, that he considered far more important than the charges levied against him. How useful the information actually was depends on whom you ask.

Wilson: “I gave him a complete rundown of everything the Libyans were doing.”

Barcella: “The information he was offering was crap.”

Wilson went back to Tripoli, and the chase resumed.

Barcella soon employed a secret weapon, a con artist named Ernest Keiser, to try to lure Wilson back out of Libya. Originally from Germany but also claiming New York or Brazil whenever it was convenient, Keiser was having passport problems when he happened upon a New York Times article about Wilson. If he could trick the rogue agent out of Libya, he figured, the U.S. government would overlook his sketchy paperwork, so Keiser posed as an employee of the National Security Council and began corresponding with the former spy.

Keiser claimed the council wanted Wilson's help in setting up a cover company to mount attacks against pro-communist guerrillas in Central America, a move that would surely help wipe Wilson's slate clean with the Justice Department. Wilson says he always knew Keiser wasn't completely on the up-and-up, but he'd fallen out of favor with the Libyans after returning from Rome, so he decided to take a chance in June 1982.

“I had to get out of there,” he says. The Libyans were done with him. “They were either going to get me out of the country or execute me, and I had to leave.”

Before departing, Wilson had given Keiser a half million dollars to start up the front company. He would never see the money again. When Wilson landed in the Dominican Republic with a 40-page plan for the Central American operation in his suitcase, U.S. marshals stuck a gun in his back and escorted him onto another plane bound for New York.

Even on the ride back, Wilson wasn't too worried about being prosecuted, he says. He figured the CIA would stand up for him.

The CIA didn't. During the Houston trial, prosecutors presented an affidavit signed by Charles Briggs, executive director of the CIA, stating “with one exception while he was employed by Naval Intelligence in 1972, Mr. Edwin P. Wilson was not asked or requested, directly or indirectly, to perform or provide any services, directly or indirectly, for the CIA.”

Wilson knew he had no defense against that, so he opted not to testify. The jury convened, asked to be read the affidavit one more time, and came back with a guilty verdict on February 5, 1983.

Wilson was also convicted in Virginia for shipping arms to Libya and in New York for conspiring to have his prosecutors killed. His prison stint began in solitary confinement at the federal pen in Marion, Illinois, where one of his neighbors was Christopher Boyce, the affluent twentysomething who sold secrets to the Soviets and was immortalized in the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman.

Wilson was locked up at least 23 hours a day in a 12-by-12-foot cell at Marion. “Cement beds are tough, because the mattress is about that thick,” he says, holding his large thumb and larger forefinger less than an inch apart. “The first ten years were miserable.”

But he did have a lot of free time, so he began requesting boxes upon boxes of documents through the Freedom of Information Act, often asking for the same information multiple times in the hope the good stuff wouldn't always be blacked out. Folder by folder, sheet by sheet, he began to uncover proof of his contacts with the CIA after he'd left the agency and proof the federal prosecutors knew about those contacts.

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