Edwin Wilson was a CIA officer who fronted companies for the purposes of spying, while making millions of dollars. Eventually branded a traitor, he served more than two decades in prison before a federal judge overturned his conviction for selling explosives to Libya.
Wilson, a former Marine, lived out the lifestyle of a Boys' Own secret agent. He claimed to own 100 businesses in the US and Europe, some real, some of them fronts. At his peak, Wilson was reportedly worth $23 million and assembled a vast property portfolio, with a hunting lodge in England, an apartment in Geneva, a seaside villa in Tripoli, a townhouse in Washington and real estate in North Carolina, Lebanon and Mexico. A noted raconteur, he impressed and beguiled and mixed with the élite, entertaining congressmen, government officials, generals and CIA bigwigs at his 2,300-acre estate in Northern Virginia; he owned three private jets and showered his mistress with gifts.
At a time of rising suspicions about the agency's covert dealings, Wilson came to epitomise the CIA renegade. Officially, he worked for the CIA between 1955 and 1971, before spending five years with Naval Intelligence. He then became a specialist in running front companies which existed as a cover for espionage, while producing huge profits for Wilson. In his 1986 book about Wilson, Manhunt, Peter Maas wrote, "Being in the CIA was like putting on a magic coat that forever made him invisible and invincible."
Born into a poor farming family in Nampa, Idaho, 1928, Edwin Paul Wilson worked as a merchant seaman before attending the University of Portland, where he graduated in psychology. He joined the Marines and fought in the last days of the Korean War, where he impressed. Upon his discharge in 1955, it was suggested by a stranger on the flight home that he might enjoy working for the CIA.
Wilson's first assignment was guarding U-2 spy planes. In 1960, the CIA sent him to Cornell University for graduate studies in Labour Relations, which he put to use fighting communism in unions around the world. In one case he paid Corsican mobsters to keep leftist dockers in line; in another he released cockroaches in the hotel rooms of Soviet labour delegates.
In 1964, Wilson started a maritime consulting firm on behalf of the CIA, so that it could better monitor international shipping. By pushing up costs and skimping on taxes, he multiplied his own income to begin living his lavish lifestyle.
Leaving government service, Wilson became an arms dealer with the Libyan government, operating from bases there and in England and Switzerland. He also assembled former Green Berets to train Libyan troops, and pilots to work for Libya. In 1982, however, he was lured from a safe haven in Libya to the Dominican Republic and arrested on charges of selling Libya 20 tons of C-4 plastic explosives.
Investigators had been building a case against him since 1976, when one of his partners approached the CIA and the FBI with reservations about his business dealings. For two years Wilson was tried in four federal cases in four different courts, accused of, among other things, smuggling arms and plotting to murder his wife.
In Washington, he was acquitted of soliciting the assassination of a Libyan dissident. In Virginia, he was accused of illegally exporting a rifle and four pistols, including one used to kill a Libyan in Germany. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison (later reduced to 10) and fined $200,000. In New York he was accused of trying to hire a hitman to kill two prosecutors and witnesses against him. He was sentenced to 25 years and fined $75,000.
Finally, in Texas, Wilson was accused of exporting 20 tons of plastic explosives to Gaddafi – described as the largest such deal in US history. HIs defence was that the deal was part of a CIA intelligence-gathering operation. In 1983 he was sentenced to 17 years with a $145,000 fine.
Wilson served 22 years, mostly in solitary confinement. He used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain thousands of pages of documents showing, he argued, that prosecutors had used false testimony, an affidavit from a high-ranking CIA official, to win his conviction. Wilson and his lawyer destroyed the government's case.
In 2003 a judge in Houston ruled that faults in a key piece of evidence probably prevented an acquittal and believed that Wilson had been working for the CIA – who continued to deny involvement in the Libyan arms sale. David Corn, biographer of the CIA officer Theodore Shackley, observed: "They framed a guilty man… I think he's a terrible fellow who got what he deserved, but they did frame him."
In 2004, a year after the judge's ruling, Wilson was released from prison in Pennsylvania. He lived in Seattle with his brother on a monthly Social Security income of $1,080. He died of complications from heart surgery.
Edwin Wilson, CIA agent; born Nampa, Idaho 3 May 1928; marriage dissolved ( two sons), partner to Cate Callahan; died Seattle 10 September 2012.