This book by the late Peter Maas describes the rise and fall of Edwin Wilson, a covert officer who went from co-ordinating the supply of weapons, surveillance systems, oil, anything to regimes friendly to the US, to a life outside the agency providing over fifty thousand pounds of explosives to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, as well as arranging for the training of a paramilitary squad, and the assassination of overseas enemies of the Libyan regime. Wilson, as well as a few conspiracy theorists, have insisted that he was only taking orders for his work. There is little evidence in support, and a great deal in refutation of this, the theory only having credence because so much spywork remains shadowy and undocumented, allowing any and all hypotheses to flourish. One point of refutation unfortunately lacking is that the Libyan state at the time was beyond the pale, since other, more heinous leaders, such as Iran’s Reza Shah, were happily supplied while Wilson was at CIA; only that Libya’s interests were not congruent with that of the US at that time.
It is very much a book about money. The perception of american spies at that time is that their lives are stuffed with cash and bounty. The american agents are always viewed with envy and contempt in the books of John Le Carré as the rich shallow slow cousins. Yet Wilson, a life-long schemer and grasper, would not have made the deal with Qaddafi if it hadn’t been for the need for money to sustain his vast estate, and he would not have been able to maintain his network of government and former government employees without their need for money as well. Veteran spook-watcher Edward Jay Epstein has compared Wilson with Gatsby, but Gatsby’s money seems to blossom from him as naturally as frost from a pane, a necessary illusion if he is to move as one of the class of idle rich. Wilson seems more a constant hungry digger, closer to Faulkner’s Flem Snopes or Uncle Vilitzer of Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak.
Wilson came from an impoverished Idaho background, spent time as a Marine and did patrol work in the Korean DMZ. At Officer Candidate School, he would drive down to Detroit, buy two cars, drive one, tow the other, then sell them at Quantico, at profit, but at sharp rebate with local dealers. An injury and a chance meeting with an agency man led to his ending up at the CIA of the fifties, which was no longer the province of Skulls and Bones, but another middle class place. He did surveillance and security, before ending up at what was his life’s gift, import-export. He was involved in importing weapons, surveillance, all the tools necessary for the work ahead, in operations for Laos, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, the Congo, Indonesia, all the cold war and hot war spots of this interesting world. The supply operations were done through “proprietaries”, front companies set up by the CIA that on the outside looked like legit private companies. Wilson’s proprietaries were some of the few that did actual commercial export-import; shielded by the agency from any oversight, these companies scooped up huge profits, abetted by supply costs he’d ratchet up and understated tax payouts, the money going into land purchases that would become his gorgeous Mount Airy estate. Epstein sees Wilson’s wealth at this time and wonders: was he was being paid off as a double agent? No: Edwin Wilson was a very good businessman.
It is at this time that Wilson acquires as case officer the legendary Tom Clines, and comes into association with fellow legend Ted Shackley. Shackley would be at Berlin during the building of the underground surveillance tunnel; station chief of Miamai during the Bay of Pigs invasion; station chief of Laos where he organized the Meos tribe into an anti-communist militia; station chief of Saigon during the closing years of the Viet Nam war. Both Shackley and Clines were very good spies. They got power. They got prestige. Shackley thought Wilson was a clear intellectual inferior. Yet, he was good at the most important thing of all, making dollars, while they were stuck at government pay scales. Clines would always hit up Wilson for loans. Clines would sometimes offer to drive Wilson in his beat-up Volkswagen. Wilson gave him the cash for a new car. I can’t afford to be seen in that, said Wilson.
Richard Nixon’s paranoia brought on a cost review of the CIA. All the proprietaries were closed. Wilson moved on to the Office of Naval Intelligence, doing much the same work, as well as setting up spy ships disguised as fish trawlers. This time, the improprieties were noticed. His task force was shut down. Wilson had the possibility of going back to the Agency, but it would be without the import-export cash. He would have to give up his growing estate, his cattle, his thoroughbreds. It would be the cars and food of any other DC chump. Wilson left government behind, and went back into exotica supply.
In 1975, Wilson meets Frank Terpil, another ex-Agency man, let go after schemes involving gun smuggling and money changing. Terpil is with Intercontinental Technology, a subsidiary of Stanford Technology, a company run by Albert Hakim, who had tried to sell surveillance equipment to the Shah, and later be part of the deal to sell arms to Ayatollah Khomeni that became Iran-Contra. Terpil’s contact was Sayad Qaddafi, Muammar`s cousin. Terpil was a constant talker, with a thick Brooklyn accent. One of his teenage memories was selling a submachine gun from one friend to another.
Wilson and Terpil would meet with Major Abdullah Hanjazzi, engaging in a wide-ranging deal that would eventually include the sale of explosive timers, sale of materials for manufacture of explosives, sale of handguns, sale of rifles, sale of ammunition, the massive sale of C-4, the training of a Libyan paramilitary by a group of retired Green Berets, the provision of military information on Libya’s enemy, Egypt, and the solicited murder of two overseas Libyan dissidents.
The timers and explosive materials were sold under the cover that they were for World War II mine removal so that Libya might go ahead and drill the ocean floor for oil. When pressed, Wilson admitted this was actually a lie, a cover story for something else. He lied again, that it was actually for the subsidised training of a local anti-terrorist force. The C4 explosive was shipped in, disguised as drilling mud, on a plane flown by the son-in-law of Nixon’s old confidante, Bebe Rebozo. Omran El-Mehdawi, former Libyan attache for economic affairs and intelligence officer, was shot dead in Bonn with one of Wilson’s guns. Faisal Zagallai, another former Qaddafi loyalist then living in Colorado, was shot twice in the head by former Green Beret Eugene Tafoya. Zagalli survived. Wilson continued to network at his Mount Airy estate, with frequent visits from Charlie Wilson (no relation) of Texas, John Dingell of Michigan, as well as many faceless brass who formed policy and gave out contracts. At the working end of his operations, he found plenty of military and CIA people who were in need of money and happy to take what was there. “Who are we working for?” asked one Green Beret. “Me”, said Wilson, and that answer satisfied his employees. One Green Beret to another: “I don’t know exactly what’s going on over there, but it pays heavy dust.”
In January 1979, Egypt would sign a peace accord with Israel, leading to a deal with the US guaranteeing $4 billion in arms shipments, including an advance by the US for the purchase. Clines, Shackley, and Wilson, along with other ex-CIA, formed Egyptian American Transport Services (EATSCO) to ship the weapons. Clines, who would often drop by Wilson’s office for small loans, got half a million in start-up capital for EATSCO from Wilson.
Then, in small ways and then in large ones, things started going very wrong for everyone.
Rafael Quintero, along with brothers Rafael and Raoul Villaverde, three exile Cubans who had been involved in numerous CIA operations, were brought in by Terpil to assassinate Umar Abdullah Muhayshi, a Libyan dissident living in Egypt. Quintero suspects there’s something wrong by the amount offered. CIA jobs pay $300 a month. They are offered between three quarters of a million to a million dollars. Shortly after, a former Chilean ambassador is killed, and the possibility is raised that Wilson, along with exile Cubans, is behind it. Though this proved false, the questions led to DC Assistant District Attorny Lawrence Barcella, a brave and decent man, to start looking into Wilson’s activities.
Kevin Mulcahy, a Wilson employee with a difficult life and a drinking problem, would become more nervous about the activities he was involved in, going first to the ATF, and then to journalist Seymour Hersh. Terpil was caught skimming from the operation and fled to work for Uganda’s Idi Amin. Tafoya was arrested for the failed assassination attempt. Jerry Brower, an explosives expert who bought up the C-4 for Wilson, pled guilty to conspiracy charges to ship weapons and munitions. Charges are brought against Terpil and Wilson for solicitation to commit murder and shipping of explosives.
A Rome meeting was arranged between Barcella and Wilson to negotiate a deal, with Wilson promising information about the Cubans behind the Letelier bombing. He never provides the information. He hands over data which he claims are detailed plans of an A bomb that Libya is trying to obtain. Experts say the plans are junk. Wilson keeps trying for some kind of deal, any deal. “You want the PLO?” says Wilson. “I’ll give you the PLO.” Barcella returned to the US, and began to put together a plan to extradite Wilson. This plan required the help of Ernest Keiser. Keiser is driven to help Barcella because he has birth certificate problems.
Keiser was a well travelled man, a Wehrmacht veteran, wanted for fraud in Germany, married in Jordan, wanted for passport tampering in Morocco, worked undercover in a police sting in Bogota, arrested for real estate swindling in Belize, etc. In New York City, a more infamous felon was arrested while having dinner with Keiser at “21”, as part of another police sting in which Keiser was an undercover participant. Carol Bruce, a legal assistant on Barcella’s staff, would refer to him as “Bela”, as in Bela Lugosi. Keiser was now facing deportation from the US after it was discovered the New York hospital he claimed to have been born in had no records of his birth, and neither did the city of New York. Keiser played his best hand, pleading for a stay if he could help bring in Wilson, now a well-known fugitive, back to the US.
A meeting was set up between Keiser and Wilson, with Keiser promising to use his influence with government higher-ups to get Wilson’s charges dropped, while Wilson put in a claim to be able to cobble up a sit down with the PLO. Keiser said that he had arranged for National Security Council representatives to meet with Wilson in the Dominican Republic. Wilson flew in for the meet, and was arrested before he left the airport. Before the arrest, Wilson had committed to a deal with Keiser to buy land near Disney World.
Wilson would be convicted on sundry charges in weapons and explosives export. While awaiting trial, he attempted to solicit the murder of numerous people, including his wife, Barcella, Bruce, and Keiser. The prisoner from whom he made the solicitation told the government of the offer, and the FBI was brought in. Wilson received further time in prison for this. Further details on this episode, focusing on how it is described in wikipedia and Maas’ book is in this post.
During the course of these trials, Kevin Mulcahy, the first man to go to the authorities about Wilson killed himself after a long period of depression and a relapse into alcoholism. Waldo Dubberstein, a Pentagon employee paid by Wilson for Egypt military information wanted by Libya, killed himself the day of his indictment for these activities.
The furor over Wilson would lead to Congressional oversight into the EATSCO contract, which would find over $8 million in overbilling. EATSCO would lose the contract. Shackley and Clines had already been forced to leave the CIA due to their association with Wilson. Shackley, who had long been expected to be a future head of the agency, lost that possibility in the uproar.
Frank Terpil would be convicted in absentia to over five decades in prison. He would supply weapons to the Arafat wing of the PLO, turning up later in Lebannon, Prague, Nicaragua, Grenada before the US invasion, Prague again, and finally, Cuba, where it is believed he is under house arrest with no plans for extradition to the US. At a meeting with Cuban exiles that went awry decades before, he would ask, “Who needs those dumb spics anyway?”
Following his successful attempt to extradite Wilson, Ernest Keiser would end up indicted in both Westchester County, New York, and Tampa, Florida, over fraud involving real estate. The day before the first trial, Keiser and his wife would become international fugitives.
After decades of rejected appeals on various grounds, Wilson would finally score a winner, arguing that an affidavit filed by the CIA in the C-4 explosives export trial claiming almost no professional contact between Wilson and the agency after 1971 was false. Judge Lynn Hughes agreed, and vacated the conviction. The Justice Department did not go for a re-trial. At the time of his conviction, Wilson was a well-known figure of notoriety, a cover subject for the New York Times Magazine (Part one of the story by Seymour Hersh and Part Two). When he left prison in 2004, he was an obscurity. He goes unmentioned in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes. An ABC News segment was one of the few pieces of coverage on his release, portraying Wilson as a legal martyr. It did not raise Wilson’s attempt to have prosecution and associates killed during an interview.
That same year, the United States lifted sanctions against Libya, and began co-operating in anti-terrorism operations. This year, 2011, the Libyan regime fell, and its leader killed. In a Jon Lee Anderson piece (“King of Kings”) on the country after the fall, Wilson and Terpil are given an unnamed mention in one sentence as rogue CIA agents. In a piece by Patrick Radden Keefe in 2010 on the successful capture of arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar (“The Trafficker”), Tom Clines shows up because of his arrangement with al-Kassar to buy rifles and ammunition to supply the contras, part of the deal that was Iran-Contra. During his trial, Kassar made claims that he was an intelligence asset. Kassar received thirty years. Clines had fond memories of Kassar. I hope the Syrians get him back home, he says.
Edwin Wilson had contempt for his father. He was a slight, stooped man, a dreamer unable to provide for his wife and children, though on his death, the church was filled with tearful mourners. Wilson was grateful for taking after his mother, a tough, practical big boned woman. During his time with the merchant marine, Wilson challenged a bully who had been picking on the ships carpenter. While recovering after being knocked unconscious, Wilson was visited by the carpenter. Why’d you do that for, asked the carpenter. He wasn’t bothering me that much. That was the best lesson he ever got, Wilson would say. Knocked the last trace of idealism out of him.
In August 2001, Peter Maas died. December 2002, Ted Shackley died. April 2003, Albert Hakim died. November 2010, Lawrence Barcella died. On October 20th, 2011, Muammar Qaddafi died. When I write this post, November 12th 2011, Frank Terpil and Edwin Wilson are alive.
The story of Edwin Wilson is a fascinating one. The late Peter Maas tells it very, very well in Manhunt.