April 27, 2005 — -- This is the story of a man, a one-time CIA officer, who spent 22 years in prison after being branded a traitor and a threat to the country.
"That was me," Ed Wilson said. "The most dangerous man in America, which is ridiculous."
Wilson, at age 54, was sentenced in 1983 to 52 years in prison. He was convicted of selling weapons and 20 tons of C-4 plastic explosives to Moammar Gadhafi's Libya. He was also convicted of trying to arrange a contract hit on the prosecutors.
Wilson's defense was that he was still working with the CIA and that the agency knew and approved of everything he was doing with Libya, including the shipment of the explosives.
Prosecutor Ted Greenberg said at the time that Wilson was making up his connection to the CIA. "Mr. Wilson did not work for the CIA or any other part of the intelligence community," he said.
In Houston, Wilson's conviction was overturned by a federal judge, Lynn Hughes, who identified about two dozen government lawyers, including Greenberg, who participated in the use of a false CIA affidavit that sent Wilson to prison and the silence about the affidavit after serious questions were raised about its accuracy. And Hughes minced no words in his opinion.
"In the course of American justice, one would have to work hard to conceive of a more fundamentally unfair process," wrote Hughes, "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 Washington."
Wilson is a free man now.
The CIA would not disclose its records but did provide an affidavit in the final days of the trial from a top CIA official that said, with one minor exception, Wilson "was not asked or requested, directly or indirectly, to perform or provide any services, directly or indirectly, for CIA."
It was the lynchpin of the government's case, according to Wilson's current lawyer, David Adler.
"It was read into evidence during the trial," Adler said. "The jury went back to deliberate. After a short time of deliberations, the jurors asked to hear this affidavit again. It was re-read to them, and an hour later they voted guilty on all counts for Mr. Wilson. So I think it was critical to the jury's decision."
Wally Sisk, the foreman of the jury in Houston that convicted Wilson, agreed with Adler's speculation about the power of the false affidavit. "If we had known that, I can say unequivocally that there would not have been a guilty verdict," he said, "because that would have taken away the whole case of the prosecution."
Wilson expected to die behind bars. "Yeah, I thought I was gone," Wilson said. He was first sent to solitary confinement at the high-security federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., locked down for 23, 24 hours a day.
But the thought of clearing his name gave him the strength to continue, Wilson said.
"Oh no, you can't give up. Because at the time, I knew, I knew I was innocent of this thing," he said. "I took it and I said, 'I'll have my day someday.' "
It would take 20 years for Wilson to prove that the affidavit was false. From his cell in Marion, Wilson began to seek government documents using the Freedom of Information Act. It was 14 years later that the government turned over an internal Justice Department memo, buried in a large stack of other documents, in which Justice Department officials acknowledge the CIA affidavit was possibly false and discuss what to do about it.
"Somebody slipped up and never intended for Mr. Wilson to see this document," Adler said. "I think they forgot that if you put someone in solitary confinement, that they don't have a lot to do all day other than to pore through these documents, and I think Mr. Wilson paid a lot more attention to the materials than the people who were responsible for releasing them at the Justice Department."
Since then, Adler, a former CIA officer himself who was at first skeptical when assigned the case, has discovered dozens of Justice Department and CIA documents that prove the key affidavit in the Wilson case was false and that many in the government knew it. He said one document revealed at least 80 instances of contact between Wilson and the CIA.
"I'm not skeptical anymore," Adler said. "I think the documents are about as clear as they could be that this was an intentional, purposeful effort to conceal the truth from the judge, from the jury, from Mr. Wilson and his defense lawyers and from the public."
And some of those involved in the Wilson case went on to become some of the most prominent men in legal circles today.
"Many careers were greatly enhanced by the successful prosecution of Mr. Wilson back in 1983," Adler said. "I think I've uncovered something that, at the very least, should question whether or not they deserve to have those types of positions."
Hughes, in his ruling, singled out Greenberg, about whom he wrote, "deliberately, knowing the facts, Greenberg ignored the CIA attorneys' requests and used it."
In a statement to Nightline, Greenberg says he was never warned by the CIA that the affidavit was false, that the concerns were about tactics.
Greenberg said he would never file "with the court an affidavit or other document which I knew to be inaccurate or false."
The supervising prosecutor on the case, Larry Barcella, says he cannot recall seeing the affidavit before it was introduced and denies doing anything improper when the issue was raised later. But according to Adler, Barcella participated in the meetings when it was discussed that something might have to be corrected about the affidavit.
Wilson has filed complaints with the Washington, D.C., bar association about Barcella.
"Evil, that's a word I like. Evil," Wilson said about the prosecutors. "They were not just doing their jobs. They were doing it for themselves."
After the guilty verdict, the CIA general counsel, Stanley Sporkin, who had told prosecutors prior to introduction of the affidavit in the trail that it should be amended or not used, again raised a red flag, according to one of the documents Adler and Wilson discovered.
"The CIA drafted up a letter that the agency proposed be sent to Wilson's attorneys disclosing the problem with the affidavit," Adler said. "And again the Justice Department rejected the CIA's suggestion that the letter be sent to Mr. Wilson's lawyer, and so it was never disclosed at that juncture either."
D. Lowell Jensen was in charge of the criminal division of the Justice Department when the decision was first made. He declined to comment on his role in the Wilson case. Adler said he "found a fair number of memos that were addressed to him, or from him, talking about the problem, talking about the decision to keep quiet about this."
Stephen Trott replaced Jensen as the top Justice Department official at the time. Trott says he recalls a meeting on the Wilson case but none of the details.
The Justice Department has now admitted the affidavit used to convict Wilson was false, an innocent error, its lawyers told Hughes.
As for the CIA, they will only say, "It was Mr. Wilson's decision to sell explosives to Libya, and that's why he was sent to jail."
However, Hughes put it another way. "America will not defeat Libyan terrorism by double-crossing a part-time, informal government agent," he wrote.
Wilson says he lost all he had, his family and his wealth, over the 22 years he was in prison. Now living with his brother in Seattle, he says he simply wants to clear his name.
Vic Walter, Avni Patel and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.