Edwin Wilson, the CIA veteran jailed for carrying out the biggest illegal arms deal in US history, died in Seattle on 10 September aged 84. Born in Idaho, he joined the CIA in the 1950s after serving in the Korean War. He retired from the Company in 1971 but continued to work for them freelance and built up a fortune of over $20 million as an arms dealer, claiming to have arranged clandestine CIA arms shipments to Angola, Laos, Indonesia and Congo.
Next stop Libya, on the orders, or so he claimed, of Theodore Shackley, the CIA officer known to his colleagues as ‘the Blond Ghost’; his mission was to keep an eye on Carlos the Jackal, then enjoying Gaddafi’s hospitality. But Libya was Wilson’s downfall, and in 1980 he was indicted for selling explosives to Gaddafi and soliciting murder. The CIA convinced him that if he came back to run a spying operation in the Dominican Republic his indictment would be forgotten. Tired of home-distilled ‘flash’ and pining for decent liquor, Wilson agreed to go, but was arrested on arrival in the Caribbean. Charges against him included exporting 20 tons of C-4 military explosive to Libya, said to be equal to the whole US Army stock at the time. He was given three prison sentences totalling 52 years.
He spent 10 years in solitary in a supermax prison but never stopped arguing that everything he had done had been under CIA control. ‘He’s like a herpes sore,’ the prosecutor who originally put him in jail said. ‘He just keeps coming back.’ In 2003 an appeal judge ruled that prosecutors knowingly used false testimony to undermine his defence, and his conviction for selling explosives was thrown out. He was released in 2004 having served 22 years. ‘I can’t think of one thing I did that I have any guilt about,’ he told a Seattle newspaper. ‘I didn’t hurt anybody. I didn’t get anyone killed.’ But one of the pistols he arranged to smuggle into the Libyan embassy in Bonn was used to kill a Libyan dissident there. ‘That I feel bad about,’ he said.
There is a British angle to Wilson’s story that has never been made public. In 1983 I was head of the FCO department responsible for relations with Libya, which were extremely bad. We got a report from the Nigerian police that a Nigerian who had just been released from prison in Libya had a story about a British man who was held somewhere by the Libyans. All the Nigerian knew was a single name, a common Christian name which could have been a forename or a surname.
We could not connect the story to any British subject known to us, and of course could not be sure that the story was accurate. Our enquiries led nowhere. But I took the name with me the following year when I was appointed British ambassador in Tripoli. Eventually I was able to obtain from a friend in the Libyan Foreign Ministry a list of foreign prisoners held by the Revolutionary Committees, a secretive institution not under the control of the state and with a grisly reputation. The list was in Arabic, and the transcription of foreign names was rough and ready. Some of them were quite unintelligible, but one looked as if it could be the name we had been given by the Nigerian.
After further enquiries I discovered that the man did indeed exist and was British. The bad news was that he was held on suspicion of espionage: he had been Wilson’s bag carrier. When Wilson left Libya, lured back home by the sting operation I have described, the Libyans assumed that they had been double-crossed. They hoped they could screw the story out of his assistant.
I had to undertake some complex manoeuvres to get the Libyan official legal system and the Revolutionary Committees pointing in the same direction. It was tricky but our man was eventually handed over to me. Probably by then his Libyan jailers had concluded that he had nothing useful to tell them.
He had been tortured, and his psychological state was such that it was not possible to get him to tell a coherent story. I got him on the first plane to London; what they made of him there I never heard. It was a near thing; only a couple of weeks later, if I remember rightly, Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher was murdered in London and I was instructed to break off diplomatic relations. Our man, and another British subject who had been caught selling shirts made in Israel, were lucky to get out when they did.
Edwin Wilson’s story is an example of history repeating itself. In 1803 the US 36-gun frigate Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli harbour. The captain and crew were thrown into a dungeon in which, according to the ship’s surgeon, ‘to privation of pure air, wholesome food, &c. was added the annoyance of noxious reptiles.’ The American consul negotiated their release on payment of a ransom, but meanwhile a few US marines and a group of mercenaries set out from Alexandria to rescue them. They seem not to have got much further than Derna in Cyrenaica, still a good five hundred miles away from Tripoli, but this military adventure is still celebrated in the marine hymn ‘From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli’. One member of the ship’s company defected to the Libyans. He must have been a gunner, because the Libyans employed him to teach them ‘how to throw bombs, hot shot and hand grenades’. His name was Wilson.