False Evidence Cited in Overturning Arms Dealer's Case
- False Evidence Cited in Overturning Arms Dealer's Case
By Dana Priest
A federal judge in Houston has overturned a former CIA operative's 1983
conviction for selling explosives to Libya, saying the Justice Department
"knowingly used false evidence against him" and suppressed the fact that the
CIA had employed him to trade weapons or explosives with Libya in exchange
for sophisticated Soviet military equipment.
Edwin P. Wilson, a CIA officer-turned-arms dealer, will not be freed
because he is serving lengthy sentences for two other convictions -- selling
firearms to Libya without permission and conspiring from prison to have
prosecutors and witnesses against him killed. But his attorney, David Adler,
said yesterday that the opinion could help persuade courts to reopen those
cases, as Wilson has asked.
In a scathing opinion released Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes
identified "two dozen lawyers who actively participated" in the decision to
withhold information from the court that convicted Wilson on charges of
shipping 20 tons of C-4 explosives to Libya -- the largest illegal weapons
deal in U.S. history.
Hughes, a Reagan administration appointee in the Southern District of
Texas, also faulted top CIA and Justice Department officials for allowing a
pivotal -- but untrue -- affidavit from the CIA's then-executive director,
Charles A. Briggs, to be used in court. The affidavit denied that Wilson did
work for the agency after he left as a full-time employee in 1971.
In fact, the CIA used Wilson in various ways after 1971 to collect
intelligence on Libya, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Hughes found after
reviewing documents that Wilson obtained and filed with his motion to
overturn the conviction. Agency employees had more than 80 contacts with him
in those years, Hughes found, and Wilson had a close relationship with two
senior CIA officials -- Thomas G. Clines, then the deputy director of
operations, and Theodore G. Shackley, then the associate deputy director of
Wilson, now 75, has never denied that he made the explosives deal; his
defense was that it was part of his cover to gather intelligence.
"In the course of American justice," Hughes wrote , "one would have to
work hard to conceive of a more fundamentally unfair process with a
consequentially unreliable result 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
By the time the trial started, the judge said, "prosecutors knew that the
CIA had employed Wilson in 1974 and 1975 to trade weapons or explosives with
Libya in exchange for sophisticated Soviet military equipment like MiG-25
"Honesty comes hard to the government," Hughes wrote in his 24-page
opinion, which also accused the Justice Department of purposely making his
job difficult by moving "the walnut shells constantly, hoping the pea will
not be found."
"It has been found," he declared.
Adler has filed a motion before Hughes's court in Houston asking that 17
current and former CIA and Justice Department officials be held in contempt.
Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said yesterday that the
department "is reviewing the decision and our options."
The CIA declined to comment on the ruling, but agency spokesman Mark
Mansfield said: "The CIA didn't authorize or play any role whatsoever in
[Wilson's] decision to sell arms to Libya. That decision was his, and that
is why he went to jail."
Wilson worked full time for the CIA from 1955 to early 1971, mostly as an
undercover officer. According to Hughes's opinion, he worked after that in
various capacities for U.S. intelligence agencies and had ties with 12 CIA
front companies. Shackley met Wilson "on a regular basis" and used Wilson's
information about the international arms market and the Libyan government.
Wilson also provided documents about Libya's assassination teams and its
nuclear weapons program.
The Briggs affidavit presented at the trial, however, said Wilson "was not
asked or requested, directly or indirectly, to perform or provide services,
directly or indirectly, for CIA" after his retirement in 1971.
Three days after the trial, but before Wilson was sentenced, Hughes said,
a CIA investigator sent a memorandum to the agency's inspector general
highlighting "the untrue paragraphs from Briggs' affidavit" and listing five
CIA projects Wilson had worked on after 1971, including a planned trip to
Iran with the deputy director of operations to develop an agent there.
Two days later the CIA forwarded the memo to the U.S. attorney's office,
and a lawyer at the Justice Department then sent a memo, titled "Duty to
Disclose Possibly False Testimony," to the deputy assistant attorney general
of the criminal division.
According to a CIA memo declassified in 2000, CIA lawyers repeatedly asked
the lead prosecutor, Theodore Greenberg, not to use the affidavit in court.
He used it anyway, believing it was "essential to win the case," according
to the memo.
The Justice Department never turned all its information over to Wilson's
attorney. It was unearthed by Wilson over the years through documents
released to him under the Freedom of Information Act.
"America did not defeat the Axis because it locked up Japanese Americans,"
Hughes wrote. "America did not defeat the Soviet Union because it tried to
lock up its philosophic fellow-travelers here. America will not defeat
Libyan terrorism by double-crossing a part-time, informal government agent."
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