October 30, 2003
Ex-C.I.A. Man Wins Verdict Reversal
By DOUGLAS JEHL
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 A federal judge in Texas has
thrown out the 1983 conviction there of Edwin P. Wilson, a former
Central Intelligence Agency officer, for selling tons of explosives to
Libya, ruling that prosecutors knowingly used false testimony to
undermine his defense.
The ruling by Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Federal District Court in Houston
was scathing in its condemnation of the government's conduct in a case
that was one of the most prominent of its time. Judge Hughes said Mr.
Wilson's efforts to defend himself had been "contradicted by a
dishonest agency memorandum issued from a bunker" at the C.I.A.'s
headquarters in Langley, Va.
The order, made public in Texas on Tuesday, vacates Mr. Wilson's
conviction for selling 20 tons of plastic explosives to the Libyan
government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in the 1970's. The idea that a
former intelligence officer would provide weapons to Colonel Qaddafi's
government was regarded as a particular outrage at a time when Libya's
support for terrorist organizations around the world was considered a
major source of instability.
Mr. Wilson, now 75, has spent more than 20 years in prison, where he is
serving 52 years on convictions in three separate cases. The other two
include convictions for attempted murder and the illegal export of
arms, with the sentences to run consecutively.
But with the conviction for selling explosives set aside, Mr. Wilson's
court-appointed lawyer, David Adler, said in a telephone interview
today that his client might become eligible for parole later this year
if the government decided not to appeal the judge's ruling.
Mr. Wilson, who retired from the C.I.A. in 1971, defended himself
against the charges by saying he had acted, at least implicitly, under
the direction and authority of the agency. Judge Hughes found that
federal prosecutors knew he had maintained close personal and
professional ties to the C.I.A., but nevertheless introduced a false
affidavit from a top agency official, Charles A. Briggs, saying that
the agency had not asked Mr. Wilson "to perform or provide any
services, directly or indirectly."
In appealing the case more than three years ago, Mr. Wilson was able to
produce records of at least 40 occasions where he worked for the C.I.A.
after his retirement. While none of those records showed that the
agency asked him to sell the explosives to Libya, several showed that
it knew he worked in that country and asked for his help in obtaining
information. The appeal, filed in 2000, was based on new information
obtained by Mr. Wilson's lawyer.
In his 24-page ruling on that appeal, Judge Hughes said that
prosecutors had "deliberately deceived the court," and that the jury
might well have acquitted Mr. Wilson if the federal government had told
the truth about the extent of his contacts with the C.I.A.
A Justice Department spokesman said on Wednesday that prosecutors were
still reviewing the ruling and had not yet decided whether to appeal
it. The C.I.A. said it would not comment on the decision, but a
spokesman, Mark Mansfield, repeated the agency's contention that Mr.
Wilson had been acting on his own in arranging the sale of the
"The C.I.A. did not authorize or have anything to do with his decision
to sell explosives to Libya," Mr. Mansfield said of Mr. Wilson. "That
decision was his, and that's why he went to jail."
Mr. Adler, Mr. Wilson's lawyer, said the ruling had come "as a great
relief" to his client, who he said now felt vindicated in his claims
that he had continued to work for the agency after his retirement. Mr.
Adler, who by coincidence is also a former C.I.A. operative, was
permitted by the government to review hundreds of thousands of pages of
classified documents in a secure vault at Justice Department
headquarters in preparing the appeal.
Together with Frank Terpil, another former agency operative convicted
of selling weapons to Libya and other countries, Mr. Wilson was among
the most notorious figures of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Unlike
Mr. Terpil, who fled to Lebanon, Syria and ultimately to Cuba, where he
still lives, Mr. Wilson was ultimately lured back to the United States
after being indicted in 1980, two years after the federal government
began to investigate his activities in Libya.
Mr. Wilson was initially acquitted on charges of shipping explosives.
He then fled to Libya and did not leave until June 1982, when an
American agent used a ruse to persuade him to travel to the Dominican
Republic. From there, he was taken to New York City and arrested.
A federal court in Virginia then convicted him of exporting firearms to
Libya without permission and sentence him to 10 years. In 1983, he was
convicted in Texas of exporting explosives to Libya and sentenced to 17
years. Later, a federal court in New York convicted him of attempted
murder, criminal solicitation, obstruction of justice, tampering with
witnesses, and retaliating against witnesses, and sentenced him to 25
years, to run consecutively with his Virginia and Texas sentence.
Mr. Adler explained that with the Texas conviction thrown out, Mr.
Wilson would have served his time in the Virginia case and possibly
enough time in the New York case to be eligible for parole.
It was the 1983 conviction that Judge Hughes has overturned, saying the
case against Mr. Wilson amounted to "double-crossing a part-time,
informal government agent."
"In the course of American justice, one would have to work hard to
conceive of a more fundamentally unfair process with a consequentially
unreliable result," Judge Hughes wrote, "than the fabrication of false
data by the government, under oath by a government official, presented
knowingly by the prosecutor in the courtroom with the express approval
of his superiors in Washington."