Edwin Wilson, CIA agent convicted as arms dealer

Mr. Wilson was convicted of smuggling explosives to Libya.
Mr. Wilson was convicted of smuggling explosives to Libya.Associated Press/file 1982

NEW YORK — Part spy, part tycoon, Edwin P. Wilson lived large.

He claimed to own 100 corporations in the United States and Europe, many of them real and many of them shells. He had an apartment in Geneva; a hunting lodge in England; a seaside villa in Tripoli, Libya; a townhouse in Washington; and real estate in North Carolina, Lebanon, and Mexico. He entertained congressmen, generals, and CIA bigwigs at his 2,338-acre estate in Northern Virginia.

He showered minks on his mistress, whom he called ‘‘Wonder Woman.’’ He owned three private planes and bragged that he knew flight attendants on the Concorde by name.


His preferred habitat was a hall of mirrors. His business empire existed as a cover for espionage, but it also made him a lot of money. He had the advantage of being able to call the IRS and use national security jargon to get the details on a potential customer. And if the IRS questioned his own tax filings, he terminated the discussion by saying he was a CIA agent on a covert mission.

‘’Being in the CIA was like putting on a magic coat that forever made him invisible and invincible,’’ Peter Maas wrote in ‘‘Manhunt,’’ his 1986 book about Mr. Wilson.

For Mr. Wilson, who died on Sept. 10 in Seattle at 84, the adventure collapsed with his arrest in 1982 on charges of selling Libya 20 tons of powerful explosives.

During the next two years, he was tried in federal cases in four courts, accused, among other things, of smuggling arms and plotting to murder his wife. He was sentenced to a total of 52 years in prison. He served 22 of them, mostly in solitary confinement. Then the dagger of fate took a strange twist.

After studying thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Wilson and his lawyer went back to court and demolished the government’s case.


Mr. Wilson’s defense was that he was working for the CIA, serving his country, when he sold the explosives to Libya. The prosecution’s case had rested on an affidavit by the CIA’s third-ranking official denying that Mr. Wilson had been working for the agency. An hour after being read the affidavit, a jury found Mr. Wilson guilty.

Two decades later, evidence Mr. Wilson collected persuaded a federal judge in Houston, Lynn H. Hughes, that he had in fact been working for the agency and that the CIA had lied.

In 2004, a year after the judge’s ruling, Mr. Wilson was released from Allenwood federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Since then he had lived in Seattle on a monthly Social Security check of $1,080. He died of complications from heart-valve replacement surgery, his nephew Scott Wilson said.

Up until his death, Mr. Wilson was hoping to persuade two other US courts to void his convictions on the other charges.

Edwin Paul Wilson was born into a poor farm family in Nampa, Idaho, on May 3, 1928.

He shipped out as a seaman before returning to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the University of Portland. He joined the ­Marines and served in Korea ­after the conflict there ended.

Flying home, he spoke with a passenger who told him that he might like working for the CIA. The passenger did not identify himself, but Mr. Wilson wrote down a name and number to call. The agency hired him in 1955. His first job was guarding U-2 spy planes.


In 1960, the CIA sent him to Cornell for graduate studies in labor relations, which he put to use against communism in unions around the world. In one assignment he paid Corsican mobsters to keep leftist dockworkers in line; in another, he released cockroaches in the hotel rooms of Soviet labor delegations.

In 1964, on behalf of the agency, Mr. Wilson started a maritime consulting firm so that the CIA could better monitor international shipping. By nudging up costs and skimping on taxes, he multiplied his own income.

Mr. Wilson left the CIA in 1971, at least publicly, to join the Office of Naval Intelligence. Again he formed companies in service of the government and took them with him when he left the government in 1976. He grew rich and lived lavishly.

Several years later, a top CIA official asked Mr. Wilson to go to Libya to keep an eye on Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who was there. That led to several weapons deals.

He also arranged for former Green Berets to train Libyan troops, and for airplane and helicopter pilots to work for Libya. He later maintained that all his activities had been done to gather information for the CIA.

Unknown to Mr. Wilson, investigators had been building a case against him since 1976, when Kevin Mulcahy, one of his partners, approached the CIA and the FBI with grave doubts about the legality and ethics of Mr. Wilson’s business dealings.


Mr. Wilson was flown to New York in 1982 and indicted on various charges in Washington, Virginia, New York, and Houston. He was tried four times during the next two years.

Mr. Wilson leaves his sons, Erik and Karl, and a sister, Leora Pinkston.