MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
He was a former CIA operative turned high-flying global arms dealer. Edwin Wilson, who became known as The Merchant of Death, has died at age 84. Wilson served 22 years in prison, after he was convicted of illegally selling tons of plastic explosives to Libya and plotting to kill federal prosecutors. In a jailhouse interview with NPR in 1986, Wilson said he wanted to clear his and his family's name.
EDWIN WILSON: I'm not crying about it. What can I do about it? All I got to do is keep fighting. Eventually, maybe I can get - maybe the truth will come out. You see, everybody keeps saying, Wilson's always got a lot of excuses. I don't have any excuses. I'm just telling truth. And I'm challenging you to go back and check all the facts out. Go tell the truth. If I'm wrong, fine, just tell the truth.
BLOCK: Well, in 2004, Edwin Wilson was set free after a judge found prosecutors had deliberately deceived the court.
Joining me to talk about Wilson's life is Joseph Trento, the author of "Prelude to Terror," which traces the story of Wilson's path to prison. Mr. Trento, thanks for being with us.
JOSEPH TRENTO: Thanks for having me. It's a sad day that Ed passed away, but he had quite a history.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that history. He was a CIA operative from 1955 to 1971, was with Naval Intelligence after that. And when he left, he made millions in the arms trade. Why don't you describe the nature of his business.
TRENTO: If you needed to get something really terrible to a foreign government, Wilson could do that for you, and it would not have the U.S. fingerprints on it even though it came under U.S. orders. So, for example, if the Shah of Iran needed new devices to torture people with, Wilson would give those devices in the Shah of Iran. And he did the same thing with governments all over the world.
BLOCK: And you're saying this is after he officially left the agency.
TRENTO: Oh, yeah. He never really left the agency. And, in fact, his top officials at the agency tried to take over his businesses. And the reason he was prosecuted was because they were trying to take his business away from him and out from under him. And the way they did that was they went to federal prosecutors and spun a tale about Wilson doing all of this stuff in an unauthorized fashion. And that's what got him under the eyes of the prosecutors under investigation.
BLOCK: Edwin Wilson was convicted in three of four trials. He was found guilty of a plot to kill prosecutors who were handling the case, where he was accused of exporting 20 tons of C4 plastic explosives to Libya, under Moammar Gadhafi. What was his defense? Was he claiming that he didn't sell these explosives, or just that the CIA knew about it or sanctioned it?
TRENTO: That the CIA knew, that it was sanctioned and he was reporting back to the CIA the whole time. And the issue was the CIA claimed that there was no evidence in the CIA files that he was working for them. Well, there was. There were more than 80 contacts that they kept from the courts.
BLOCK: And, ultimately, he served 22 years, mostly in solitary confinement in prison. He did manage to get his conviction overturned. How did he do it?
TRENTO: Well, he was a maniac on the Freedom of Information Act. And he kept filing and filing and filing FOIA requests, Privacy Act requests. And he got enough information to get a Houston attorney, a former CIA official, who finally got the information showing that the agency had lied and prosecutors knew about it.
BLOCK: And the federal judge who overturned Wilson's conviction, Lynn Hughes wrote: In the course of Americans justice, one would have to work hard to conceive of a more fundamentally unfair process. Were there a lot of people who disagreed with that, who said no, that Edwin Wilson was rightfully convicted?
TRENTO: Well, those people were wrong. And I'm no fan of Ed Wilson. I mean, he did other things he was never charged with, which probably should have sent him to prison. The problem was that the top officials of the CIA who used Wilson were basically criminals. And this is something that has never really been addressed. For them, it was enough to get Wilson and walk away from it.
BLOCK: That's Joseph Trento, remembering the former CIA operative and arms dealer Edwin Wilson. He died September 10th at age 84.
Mr. Trento, thank you.
TRENTO: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.