October 30, 2003

Ex-C.I.A. Man Wins Verdict Reversal


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 explosives.

"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."

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