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

In 1997, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes brought in local attorney David Adler to represent Wilson in his motion to vacate the 1983 Houston conviction. A former CIA man himself, Adler could get the clearance to view all the documents, plus he could weed through all the abbreviations dotting them. He started digging, and finding, and adding to the case.

Adler admits he initially thought of Wilson as just another guy in prison swearing his innocence. “But going through that warehouse of materials,” he says, “all of a sudden you come across this stuff that starts to support his claims, and you start thinking, ‘My God, this guy really was screwed over.'”

One gun that spewed smoke was a memo from a low-level employee of the CIA's inspector general's office, sent just three days after Wilson was convicted in Houston, that outlined several agency requests for Wilson's services after his retirement. “That started the whole house of cards that took 20 years to collapse,” says Adler.

Two days later a memo titled “Duty to Disclose Possibly False Testimony” was drafted by someone in the Justice Department and included a handwritten note: “Plain meaning of services —> the affid. is inaccurate.”

The next day U.S. Attorney Daniel Hedges wrote a memo defending the affidavit, stating the use of the term “services” was not meant to be taken in a broad sense. And anyway, the logic went, Wilson already knew about his contacts with the agency, so it wasn't really new evidence and didn't have to be disclosed.

A week later the government drafted a letter to Wilson's attorneys that stood by the affidavit but mentioned several of Wilson's post-1971 contacts. The letter was never sent.

Within three months of the conviction, the Justice Department knew of at least 80 contacts between Wilson and the agency after he'd retired. These included a meeting with associate deputy director Shackley about providing potential Libyan contacts and another about acquiring a Soviet surface-to-air missile system, not to mention contacts with agency personnel about securing antitank weapons and Iranian body armor.

During Wilson's appeal, the government slipped in a quick mention of two of his more innocuous contacts with the agency: procuring desalinization plants for Egypt and helping a Laotian general find a house in the United States. Wilson's conviction was upheld.

The former spy sat for two decades before Judge Hughes vacated his conviction on October 27, 2003. “America did not defeat the Axis because it locked up Japanese Americans,” the judge wrote. “America did not defeat the Soviet Union because it tried to lock up its philosophic fellow-travelers here. America will not defeat Libyan terrorism by double-crossing a part-time, informal government agent.”

Wilson walked out of prison on September 15, 2004.

We'll probably never know if the CIA actually encouraged the sale to Libya of enough plastic explosive for 40,000 Pan Am Flight 103s, but it's not tough to imagine a current scenario in which the agency might look at the big picture and okay the deal.

“I'm telling you right now,” says Adler, “if I was an agency officer and somebody told me, ‘Give me 40,000 pounds of explosives that I can pass on to Osama bin Laden and I'll tell you where he is or whether he's got a nuclear bomb,' I would say, ‘We need to doctor it up some way so it becomes inert after about a week,' but I would say, ‘Let's do it.' I don't think you're doing your job as an American intelligence officer if you don't jump on that kind of stuff.”

Now 78 years old, Wilson is busy working on appealing his convictions for shipping guns in Virginia and soliciting murder in New York. His argument in Virginia is roughly the same as it was in Houston, and he’s got Adler on the case. Getting the New York conviction overturned is going to be more difficult, although last year the undercover FBI agent who lured Wilson into arranging the hits was charged with complicity in four gangland-style slayings, so that’ll probably help his chances.

And then there's the civil lawsuit, which Seattle superstar attorney Steve Berman, winner of more than $340 million for former Enron employees, filed on Wilson's behalf in October 2005. The defendants include Lawrence Barcella and Daniel Hedges, who went on to become big-time private-practice attorneys in D.C. and Houston, respectively, not to mention former prosecutors Stephen Trott and Daniel Jensen, now both sitting federal judges.

The suit alleges Wilson's Fifth Amendment rights were violated when federal prosecutors knowingly fabricated evidence against him. It details how the government stripped Wilson of tens of millions in tax court. It implies Barcella leaked classified documents to author Peter Maas during research for the book Manhunt: the Incredible Pursuit of a CIA Agent Turned Terrorist, which heroized the lawman's quest for Wilson.

“The information that Maas got was not classified,” says Barcella, who claims the author, now deceased, constructed his narrative from grand-jury transcripts to which Wilson also had been privy. But none of that really matters anymore, because five weeks ago U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal dismissed Wilson's civil suit outright, ruling the behavior of the prosecutors, “even if improper, is entitled to absolute immunity.”

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