Spy Stories

Four days before Christmas, 1988. A flight takes off from Heathrow, headed for New York. Thirty-eight minutes later, one blip on the radar becomes four.

Hidden in a Toshiba cassette player inside a brown Samsonite suitcase, a block of plastic explosive punches a 20-inch hole in the left side of the fuselage, right near the “P” of the Pan Am logo, sending shock waves through the craft and causing the nose to detach in less than three seconds. The cockpit flops on the ground near a churchyard outside Lockerbie, Scotland, looking like a severed fish head on a bed of brown and green grass. One of the wings, loaded with fuel, completely vaporizes upon landing, killing 11 Lockerbie residents instantly. Fire, metal and flesh rain from the sky.

The ground is strewn with the flight's crew and passengers, all 259 dead, all from less than one pound of plastic explosive.

With 189 Americans onboard, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 is the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. civilians until the second Tuesday of September 2001. Libyan involvement is instantly suspected, seen as payback for President Ronald Reagan's decision to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, and two Libyan nationals are eventually tried for the attack.

Barely a month after the incident, The Nation runs an article asking a question that's on the mind of many in the intelligence community: Was a former CIA agent indirectly responsible for the carnage?

“When E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. heard about the explosion of Pan American Flight 103, he immediately thought of Edwin Wilson, the Central Intelligence Agency's infamous renegade,” the article begins. “In particular, Barcella, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney who tracked down Wilson and put him behind bars, pondered the 40,000 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive that Wilson, well schooled by the agency in intrigue and arms dealing, sold to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 1977.”

Wilson's involvement is a valid concern, one potentially rich with irony. And even though the explosive used in the Pan Am bombing turned out to be Semtex, a cousin of C-4 made in Czechoslovakia, Barcella still thinks of Wilson every time a bomb goes off anywhere in the world.

Here was a guy who had been trained by the U.S. government to set up fake proprietary companies and who turned around and used that knowledge to sell arms to a brazen sponsor of terrorism. Here was a rogue agent, a death merchant.

During his 1983 trial in Houston for shipping the explosives and his Virginia trial the year before for shipping guns, Wilson maintained his innocence, claiming he was still working under the aegis of the Company when dealing arms to Libya. The CIA called bullshit and produced an affidavit stating Wilson hadn't had any indirect or direct contact with the agency, save for one minor incident, since his retirement in 1971. The Houston jury asked for that affidavit to be reread right before bringing back a guilty verdict.

Wilson was sent away for a long time, sentenced to 57 years in all, the first ten spent in solitary confinement. Justice was served.

But there was just one problem: The CIA had lied when it said Wilson hadn't been in contact with the agency since 1971. He'd actually been in contact with CIA officials at least 80 times. And the Justice Department knew the CIA had lied and didn't do anything about it.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes vacated the Houston conviction, slapping the government for its willful use of false evidence. Wilson was freed in 2004. He now lives in Seattle. He's working on getting his Virginia conviction overturned, as well as a conviction in New York for conspiring to have witnesses and prosecutors killed. He filed a civil suit in 2005, but five weeks ago U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal declared that the former prosecutors — two of whom are now sitting federal judges — had immunity for their actions.

The history of what exactly happened 30 years ago will always be hazy, but Rosenthal's ruling makes one thing clear: The government lied and locked a man up, and there's not much he can do about it.

Like any good spy story, this one begins with murder: the 1976 assassination of a Chilean ambassador named Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. Letelier was rounding Sheridan Circle when a bomb exploded under his car, shredding him and his assistant. He had been a high-profile critic of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Seven months later, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward penned an article titled “Ex-CIA Aide, Cuba Exiles Focus of Letelier Probe.” The Ex-CIA aide was none other than Edwin Wilson, and in the article Woodward outlined how Wilson had been in contact with the Libyan government and how Wilson was being questioned in connection with the Letelier murder. Nothing ever came of the Wilson-Letelier connection, but the article sent Washington scrambling to figure out what exactly Wilson was doing over there in Qaddafi-land. And perhaps most important, Woodward's story placed Wilson's name in the mind of Assistant U.S. Attorney Barcella, whose eventual pursuit of the arms dealer would span three continents and almost four years.

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Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek