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Peter Maas. Random House, $18.95. The story of Edwin P. Wilson, the CIA agent who grew rich selling arms to Libya, is fast becoming a much-told tale, in part because he is one of the few real life people who conform to Hollywood notions of the "typical' CIA operative. Peter Maas, author of Serpico and The Valachi Papers, takes up the subject Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, Steve Kurkjian and Ben Bradlee Jr. of the Boston Globe, and many other reporters have taken up before. Besides spinning a clear and readable narrative of the case, Maas contributes new evidence that the CIA knew exactly what Wilson was up to all along and did nothing.

One day in the mid-1970s Wilson and his partners were shipping Qaddafi 42,000 pounds of plastic explosives--"[Wilson crony Jerry] Brower was about to command almost every pound of C4 that was commercially abailable in the United Staes, and nobody had noticed it.' Then they sent 500,000 miniature detonators for letter bombs--"even Wilson was stunned by the number.' Then handguns and M16 rifles for the next day. Eventually these slime helped Libyan military men arrange for the murders of anti-Qaddafi dissidents. All the while Wilson was living in a multimillion-dollar estate at the center of Virginia's fashionable horse country, ostensibly on his civil servant's salary.

Far from concealing his luxury, Wilson advertised it, frequently inviting high-ranking CIA officials to his estate. None seemed to suspect a thing, the same way Washington Mayor Marion Barry had a deputy mayor, a wife, and several other prominent members of his administration driving Mercedes Benzes and otherwise living lives far beyond their means without his ever suspecting the teeniest, tiniest little thing before they were hauled into court. Washington is a city of denied realities, and reality-denying mechanisms kept the CIA from moving against Wilson and also helped the FBI and the Justice Department bungle the case, until a determined prosecutor named Larry Barcella finally seized on a technicality to start Wilson's downfall. The CIA also decided it was better to let Wilson keep going than to damage the careers of those officers who had failed to stop him earlier.

CIA officials weren't the only ones who had the evidence of Wilson's crimes repeatedly waved in their faces. Hubert Humphrey was an occasional guest at Mount Airy, the Wilson mansion. Senators Strom Thurmond and John Stennis, Rep. John Dingell, and others came, too. But, Maas writes, Wilson clearly understood his real targets. "The people Wilson most wanted to charm and seduce were Capitol Hill aides, anonymous generals and admirals, civil service employees at the highest government grades, GS-17s and GS-18s. These were the people who made the Washington world turn. No one was more important to him than a GS-18.'

When Stansfield Turner became head of the CIA, he got wind of Wilson's activities through a Bob Woodward story. Maas notes, "The Libyans didn't appear to be disturbed at all by Woodward's disclosure about Wilson's agency background. They found it amusing, as if the joke were on Washington.' Turner ordered that some agents who had profited from transactions with the traitor be fired. He encountered "a solid wall of opposition, from his top deputy . . . [to] the chief of clandestine operations . . . [to] the CIA inspector general.' Every possible foot was dragged. Eventually Turner found the guilty parties and his "purge' of suspicious CIA operatives, a subject of so many tirades by conservative intellectuals, began. But judging from the account of CIA behavior in Manhunt, the only mistake Turner made was not firing even more of these flatheads.

Wilson, Maas shows, had among his friends in high places none other than Robert Keith Gray, the allegedly "Republican' PR whiz. Gray repeatedly denied to Maas that he and Wilson were anything other than "elevator buddies,' who bumped into each other now and then because they worked in the same building. Confronted with evidence that he and Wilson had taken a two-week trip to Taiwan together in 1969, Gray suddenly remembered he was late for another appointment. Maas says he found papers showing Gray expressing "unlimited trust' in Wilson for a 1963 security background check, and again in 1975, recommending Wilson for a "position of trust.'

In places Maas indulges in journalese-style hype--he refers, for example, to the "chic Georgetown Club,' which sounds chic, but Washingtonians will recognize as low rent.

Manhunt, though not always news, is a fine work against which readers will have only minor complaints. As in many similar books, Maas's main source, Barcella, comes off sounding like a cross between Sir Galahad and Spiderman. In this case, adoration of a source should be forgiven, however, as Barcella truly does sound deserving of high praise--the one person in official Washington who just couldn't stand the thought of letting Wilson go free.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1986
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