“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, December 31, 2003


LI must start out with a disclaimer. Unfortunately, this post is going to have to mention the late Theodore Shackley.

Those of you fortunate enough to miss the eighties will not recall that Shackley was at the center of a conspiracy cult in the 80s. The eighties were a time of irrational fads – Reagan’s voodoo economics, satanic cult murders, MTV, and the liberal ghost dance of conspiracy, organized by something called the Christic institute, and dedicated to the proposition that some counter-government, headed by the CIA, or elements in the CIA, had done all the bad stuff: October surprised Carter out of office, killed Kennedy, and invented crack. Messianic movements are usually symptomatic of deeper discontents. In the case of the conspiracy ghost dance, there were two dilemmas facing a good lefty (like myself): how to cope with the evident malignity of the powers that be, i.e. Reagan, and how to transition from Vietnam War era criticisms of the American empire into a sort of patriotism. The latter eventually found an outlet in the numerous admirers of the Clinton administration – in fact, we’d guess that the left ghost dance was a key transitional movement for many to come back to the Democratic party. The party, remember, that gave us the Vietnam war.

Now, we felt then, and we feel now, that the conspiracy theories are: a., a lot of fun, and b., a load of shit. Not that conspiracy can’t happen. Brutus knifing Caesar and the 1905 St. Petersburg massacre are some evidences that they can, and do. But conspiracy, over the long term, is a piss poor explanation of political attitudes and events.

Ted Shackley was a CIA agent who was involved in, and often responsible for, some of the Agency’s most awful policies: he worked with the anti-Castro Cubans, he directed operations In the secret war in Laos, and he was involved in Latin America during the Pinochet years. His good friends, Tom Clines and Richard Secord, were also involved in most of these things, and achieved greater fame, in 1986, when their connections with Oliver North were revealed in public. By this time, Shackley had resigned from the CIA and was supposedly out of the loop. In his bio, Blonde Ghost, David Corn shows that he was probably not as out of the loop as he made himself out to be.

And then there was Edwin Wilson.

Every account of Edwin Wilson shows him to be a CIA “cowboy” – that’s the phrase that pops up again and again. Big, gregarious, brutal, with that fierce loyalty to power itself, making it so easy to turn him. An authoritarian personality, in short. Secret police, in Moscow or Miami, are drawn from a pool of character traits that don’t differ over cultures. Wilson was born poor, went into the Navy, was recruited by the CIA, advanced entrepreneurially through the organization, and became an expert at setting up cut-out businesses – businesses that served as fronts for things the CIA wanted to do, whether that meant transferring weapons against U.S. law or gaining information. In our last post, we made fun of the WP editorial that gave us a choice between rouge and patriot – as if they were mutually exclusive categories. The excluded tertium quid, here, is the idea that an institution of the government can be, itself, a rogue institution. Every pathology evolves a bureaucracy. Wilson’s particular complexes were as perfectly adapted to the CIA’s ecology as the joker is to a deck of playing cards.

Perhaps this is why, when his ties with Khadaffi were being exposed in the papers in 1981, he became the target of so much vitriol from defenders of the old boy network in the Agency. Edward Jay Epstein, for instance, who practically made himself a p.r. man for James Angleton – another alcoholic, paranoid secret policeman with a constitutional aversion to democracy – wrote about him as a rogue, stating, for instance, that he had been ‘fired” from the CIA. He was released. However, he was not released with prejudice. He was even sold the cut out company he had created for the CIA on below market terms. Nothing that he had done up to then was in violation of the CIA's bylaws. Peter Maas’s book about Wilson is obviously dependent on agency insiders who are on the same track. Joseph Goulden’s book follows, unabashedly, the line that Wilson betrayed the Agency. He did -- by getting caught. The Washington Post editorial takes up the same tired. threads. Assassination, including that of character, always benefits somebody. In this case, it clearly benefits the agency. Alas, protecting the CIA seems to have been taken on as a household task by the Washngton Post.

When Wilson was put on trial in 1983 in Houston, he was charged with illegally running arms to Libya in the seventies. A good, compressed account of the issue in the trial is on Michael Ruppert’s site (although be warned that Ruppert is definitely very biased towards Wilson’s story):

"Ed Wilson stood accused of shipping 42,000 pounds of the plastic explosive C-4 directly to Libyan dictator Moammar Qadaffy in 1977, and then hiring U.S. experts - former U.S. Army Green Berets - to teach Qadaffy's people how to make bombs shaped like lamps, ashtrays and radios. Bombs were actually made, and foes of Qadaffy were actually murdered. This was the ongoing crime that had made Wilson, and his still-missing accomplice, former CIA employee Frank Terpil, the most infamous desperadoes in the world. C-4, according to some experts, is the most powerful non-nuclear explosive made. Two pounds in the right places can bring down a jumbo jet. Hence, 42,000 pounds would be enough to bring down 21,000 jumbo jets. C-4 is highly prized on the world's black markets and is much in demand. It is supposedly very tightly controlled where it is manufactured - in the U.S.

At the time it was shipped from Houston International Airport, in 1977, the 42,000 pounds of C-4 represented almost the entire United States domestic supply. It had been collected for Wilson by one California explosives distributor who collected it from a number of manufacturers around the country. Surprisingly, no one had officially noticed. Wilson had, in earlier and subsequent deals, also sold a number of handguns to Qadaffy, and several had been used in assassinations of Libyan dissidents in a number of countries, including the United States. It was these and other firearms violations by Wilson, including a scheme to ship more than a thousand M16 rifles to Qadaffy, that had put the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and Larry Barcella on Wilson's trail back in late 1977."

The court didn’t investigate Wilson’s recruitment of a little army for Khadaffi. In the seventies, Khadaffi invaded Chad, using Green Berets that Wilson had delivered to fly helicopters and direct artillery operations. In 1980, Philip Taubman, the NYT reporter who, along with Seymour Hersch, wrote the most detailed and interesting reports about Wilson and the CIA network in which he was embedded, called his headquarters and actually talked to one of his mercenaries, a Robert Hitchman:

“Yesterday, however, a man answered his phone and identified himself as Robert Hitchman. Mr. Hitchman is Mr. Wilson's deputy. He threatened the reporter who called him and issued a stream of invectives and profanities.

He accused The New York Times of ''printing lies'' and called the reporters working on the story ''whores.'' ''You Jewish (expletive) are trying to destroy the C.I.A.,'' he said.”

Interesting side note: this Hitchman, like many of Wilson’s associates, suffered no black marks from his Libya gig. Far from it. IN 1992, the same Robert Hitchman’s name pops up again. He was one of three Dyncorps employees killed when a helicopter he was flying crashed in Ecuador: Ken Silverstein, who has written about private military service providers, is quoted by Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair about this incident:

“… in 1992, one of those helicopters crashed in the jungle. On board were three DynCorp employees, including a man named Robert Hitchman. As Silverstein notes, "Hitchman was not in Peru to repair helicopters." He was a covert-ops specialist, who had worked for the CIA's Air America in the war on Laos and ran former CIA agent Edward Wilson's Libyan operation for Muammar Qaddafy. The State Department said that the helicopter simply crashed due to "crew fatigue." But Hitchman's son told Silverstein that in fact it had been shot down by Shining Path guerrillas and that then-Secretary of State James Baker asked him to keep quiet about the true nature of his father's death. Hitchman said that far from fixing planes, his father was flying DEA agents and Peruvians on missions into guerrilla territory to destroy cocaine labs, bomb coca, and coordinate the herbicide spraying program. He said his father was also training Peruvian pilots to fly combat missions.”

Wilson’s defense was that he was working with the full knowledge of the CIA. “Full knowledge’ is of course a misnomer, since the CIA tries hard not to know what it knows, compartmentalizing information, concealing operations, and generally going under the assumption that intelligence goes together with a schizophrenic organizational flow chart. The CIA produced an affadavit falsely stating that Wilson had not been in contact with the agency since 1971. After this was given to the prosecutors, the agency had second thoughts, and warned the prosecutors that the affidavit was untrue. Thye used it anyway. What Wilson did for Libya in the seventies was known to the CIA's top people, partly because it was done right in front of their noses. Wilson discussed sending explosives to Libya in front of Shackley, who did nothing. Wilson also used two active CIA agents to recruit technicians for him for Libya. It wasn't until this activity reached the papers that these agents were fired. So what was the Agency doing? At issue in the case was Barella’s question: “…what kind of logic would have to be employed to assume that the CIA would authorize the shipment of 40,000 pounds, 20 tons, of C-4, to the guy that was then the biggest terrorist in the world?"

The problem with that question is, of course, the unthinking substitution of a description for a proper name. The biggest terrorist in the world does not equal Khadaffi. In reality, he was the head of a country with which, during Wilson’s run, the U.S. had plenty to do. It wasn’t until the end of 1981 that the Reagan administration banned oil companies from doing business in Libya. To go back to the seventies, the situation in North Africa was in flux. Egypt went from being a Soviet client to being an American ally. Libya, under Khadaffi, must have looked like a tempting target. After all, the American strategy, back then, was to encourage Islamicists as a counter-force to godless communism. Who better than Khadaffi to help with this project? Plus, he was definitely a troublemaker, and had exchanged bitter words with Arafat about the direction of the PLO.

So, from a loopy point of view, helping Libya might return dividends. This was the kind of thing “cowboys” did – after all, the CIA was practically given Laos, behind the back of any American publicity about the deal, in the early sixties. And Shackley, Secord, Clines et al had been there for Laos. They thought the war there could have been won. This revanchisme ran through the whole Defense establishment at the time. It was intertwined with an instinctive repulsion for Carter, with his human rights gestures and his weakness, at least in their eyes.

As we know now, the answer to Barella’s question was not presented at the trial. Perhaps, now,it is lost. We know that, instead, the prosecutor’s lied about Wilson’s contacts with the CIA. And Shackley lied about his contacts with Wilson. And the man was buried in prison. But his ideas for using cut outs to contact apparent American enemies bloomed in the minds of his associates, and became the form in which the Iran-Contra network operated. Ironically, when Wilson was captured, in the Dominican Republic, he was trying to get himself into the good graces of the Reagan administration by setting up a dummy company in Central America, through which the Reagan people could operate against Nicarauga. This was reported in 1981, when it seemed like a cockeyed idea only omeone of Wilson's criminality would dream up . In 1986, Wilson was forgotten, the cockeyed idea was being examined by several congressional committees. It had become the secret policy of the executive branch.

There remains, only, the names of the people who colluded to falsify testimony against Wilson. Three of the prosecutorial team went on to become judges. Let’s look, in our next post, at this group of dishonorable honorables.


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