Renegade spy, government lies

SUN JOURNAL

Espionage: A judge's order overturning the 20-year-old conviction of Edwin P. Wilson throws a new light on federal power in the prosecution of terror suspects.

November 02, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Imagine that a former CIA agent sold bomb-making supplies to Osama bin Laden. Or had provided military equipment and terrorist training for Saddam Hussein's regime.

That was the level of traitorous activity that Edwin P. Wilson, the CIA agent turned international arms dealer, was charged with for exporting explosives to Libya during the 1970s, a time when that country was considered the face of international terrorism. While Wilson had long claimed that his Libyan deals were a cover for gathering intelligence for the CIA, a jury convicted him in 1983, largely on the basis of an affidavit by a top agency official denying any connection with the former spy.

But last week, after 20 years that Wilson has spent in prison, a federal judge in Texas overturned the conviction. The government lied, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes said in a bluntly worded ruling. Prosecutors knew the affidavit was false, Hughes wrote, but entered it as evidence anyway to help convict Wilson.

The stunning ruling promises to at least partially rewrite an important chapter in espionage history: Wilson, often referred to in the same breath as turncoats such as Aldrich Ames and John A. Walker Jr., has long been considered a renegade who parlayed a CIA career into personal gain, becoming a multimillionaire with houses around the globe. But now, the revelation that he indeed continued to work for the CIA, even after officially leaving it in 1971, puts a new spin on old events.

But while the case may read like an episode from a Cold War era that has long since passed into history, experts say that it has implications for today, as the federal government ventures into new legal grounds with the prosecution of alleged terrorists such as Zacarias Moussaoui and Jose Padilla.

"We are heading down that road again," warns I. Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and director of its Center for Health and Homeland Security. "There's this tremendous incentive to get heads up on the wall, trophies. Prosecutors think they need convictions. It's a time when judges have to be particularly vigilant."

"What is worrisome to me is if this [Wilson] case were tried today, and if it involved al-Qaida, this man would have been put away without counsel," says Greenberger, a Justice Department counter-terrorism official during the Clinton administration. "The government has the ability to make any of us look like the worst criminal."

Greenberger, like others, is quick to point out that despite the overturned conviction, Wilson is certainly no innocent: Still standing are two other convictions, on crimes such as illegal arms sales ang attempting to have the prosecutors on his case killed.

Now 75 years old, Wilson received a total sentence of 52 years for the three convictions, 17 of which were for the now overturned Texas case. He is incarcerated in Allenwood Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania - also home to Ames and Walker - and his attorney has said that he could be eligible for parole as early as this year if the government does not appeal.

The subject of several books and numerous news accounts over the years, Wilson seems emblematic of a certain kind of Cold War-era spook who, whether he was on the official CIA payroll or not, worked in a shadowy world of international intrigue.

Wilson joined the CIA in 1955 and worked in undercover operations around the world before leaving in 1971. Soon after, he joined a secret Navy intelligence operation, which was shut down after five years.

From here, his career gets particularly murky: Wilson developed several private businesses and began supplying weapons and explosives to the likes of Libya's Col. Muammar el Kadafi. As it turns out, he also continued working for the CIA, in various off-the-books capacities.

Wilson could always be counted on "to finance agency projects that required immediate action," according to one CIA official, Hughes' ruling noted.

But while the CIA repeatedly used Wilson for information, contacts and other services, officials realized they could not be seen openly dealing with Wilson as he began drawing increased media attention for his deals with a country non grata like Libya.

"Ed's a little hot now," Hughes' ruling quotes a CIA official as saying, noting that any use of Wilson should not be requested through official channels.

Still agency personnel continued to associate with Wilson, enjoying picnics and hunting on his estate in Virginia hunt country and often contacting him for help in such hot spots as Libya and Iran.

But in 1980, Wilson was indicted on charges of shipping explosives to Libya, and he fled the United States to escape prosecution. He lived as a fugitive in Libya, but even then met with federal agents in Rome, where he provided information on Libya's military and details on other companies supplying equipment to the country. In 1982, he was finally arrested, after falling for an elaborate government ruse that brought him to the Dominican Republic.

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