Ex-Congressman Charlie Wilson Dies At 76

Charlie Wilson, the former congressman from Texas whose funding of Afghanistan's resistance to the Soviet Union was chronicled in Charlie Wilson's War, died Wednesday. He was 76. Melissa Block talks to Michael Vickers, United States assistant secretary of defense for special operations, and a longtime friend and associate of Wilson.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

He was known as Good Time Charlie, a hard-drinking, womanizing Texas congressman. Charlie Wilson died today of apparent cardiopulmonary arrest. He was 76.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he made it his mission to arm the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets in the '80s through a covert CIA operation. That story was told in the book "Charlie Wilson's War," later made into a movie.

Here's Wilson in an interview with Terry Gross on WHYY's FRESH AIR.

Mr. CHARLIE WILSON (Former Democrat Representative, Texas): It became clear to me that the Afghans had made a decision themselves without American or any Western participation, but they had made a decision themselves to fight till the end if they had to fight with their bare hands. And I just strongly felt that people that brave that were that opposed to being subdued by the evil empire, if you will, that we would be damned by history if we let them fight with their hands.

BLOCK: That's Charlie Wilson talking to Terry Gross.

Michael Vickers was a CIA officer who worked with Charlie Wilson to arm the Afghan resistance, and he joins us. Mr. Vickers, welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL VICKERS (Former CIA Officer): Thank you.

BLOCK: Do you remember your first impression of Charlie Wilson?

Mr. VICKERS: Sure. He was a larger-than-life character, and he was wanting to ramp up the program substantially and there was some concern at CIA at the time about whether it was too much funds too soon or for the right purposes. And so I went into my first meeting with him to brief him on our overall strategy with some trepidation and very quickly realized he was a very shrewd strategist, and, you know, he was determined to help the Afghan resistance in any way he could.

BLOCK: And talk a bit about the trips you would take with Congressman Wilson to try to figure out ways to get arms to the Afghan resistance.

Mr. VICKERS: Sure, well, he really made this his passion, and so I was fortunate enough to participate with him on trips to Egypt and Pakistan. And one of them in particular, we looked at a heavy anti-aircraft weapon that could not be disassembled and was very inappropriate for the mountains, but the Egyptians were convinced it could work and so had a team of mules trying to pull this four-barreled anti-aircraft gun up one of the hills overlooking Cairo, and the mules would have none of it.

And at the time, we were sitting on top of a hill with parasols and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken watching this spectacle. And as he gave up, he said it was the damndest CIA operation he's ever seen, but he certainly had the good humor and good judgment to realize this wasn't going to work.

BLOCK: Given Charlie Wilson's reputation, the stories about hot tubs and cocaine and drinking, how was he received by the CIA?

Mr. VICKERS: Well, I mean, Charlie certainly had a diverse reputation, I think, and so there were certainly suspicions of him, but he also could deliver in ways that others couldn't. And as U.S. strategy changed from just trying to bleed the Soviets to driving them out of Afghanistan, he was really a pivotal figure.

BLOCK: Did you talk to Charlie Wilson in later years about the blowback effect, that the weapons that we provided the mujahideen were now being used against the U.S. by the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Mr. VICKERS: As I think Charlie said on many occasions, I know Secretary Gates has the same view, it was really our failure to win the peace after we had won the war that led to the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and then allowing the al-Qaida to exploit that sanctuary, something we will never repeat again.

BLOCK: Michael Vickers, thank you for talking with us.

Mr. VICKERS: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Michael Vickers is a former CIA officer. He's now U.S. assistant secretary of Defense for special operations. And he was remembering his longtime friend and associate Charlie Wilson, the former congressman from Texas, who died today at age 76.

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