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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Think back to the early 1980s and you might recall the name Edwin P. Wilson. He made headlines for a time as a so-called death merchant. He was a retired CIA man described as someone who'd gone bad. Convicted of running guns and explosives to Libya. His exploits inspired three books, and he came to symbolize the danger of spies who slipped their leash. He received multiple prison sentences. And in this 1986 jailhouse interview with NPR, he seemed resigned to his fate.

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Mr. EDWIN WILSON (Former CIA agent): I'll never get out. No, there's just no possibility of ever getting out.

INSKEEP: And that should have been the last we heard from Edwin P. Wilson, but it wasn't.

From Seattle, NPR's Martin Kaste has the latest chapter in the saga of a rogue agent.

MARTIN KASTE: As it turned out, Ed Wilson decided to keep fighting. During his years of solitary confinement, he tried to find proof for his contention that he'd been framed by the government. He'd always insisted that whatever his crimes had been, he'd committed them as an agent of the CIA.

He says he kept working for the agency long after his formal retirement in 1971 and his Middle Eastern business ventures were just a way to curry favor with people such as Mouammar Khadafi so he could collect intelligence.

CIA officials denied he was their man and the jury believed the CIA. But from prison, Wilson peppered the government with document requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

And eventually he found it - an internal memo suggesting the CIA had been in touch with him far more than it admitted in court. It was enough to get one of Wilson's convictions thrown out.

Mr. WILSON: They had just lied. There's no other way to put it. The judge said they lied.

KASTE: In 2004, after 22 years in prison, Wilson was a free man. Now he lives on Social Security, renting an apartment from his brother near Seattle. But the 77-year-old former spy is still fighting the government. He signed on with a deep pockets litigator and he's suing nine of the former government officials who helped to prosecute him.

And he's going after some very big fish. His lawyer, Steve Berman, says many of the men who sent Wilson to prison have become quite prominent.

Attorney STEVE BERMAN (Attorney): There's a court of appeals judge who was heavily involved in this. There's a district court judge who we appear in front of that's involved in this. And the CIA is involved.

So people in the firm felt, wow, you know, maybe the government will audit us to get back at us. Maybe they'll bug our offices.

KASTE: Melinda Sarafa is the lawyer for one of the people Wilson is suing. Larry Barcella, the former prosecutor who made a name for himself by luring Wilson back to the U.S. for trial in 1982. Sarafa says, first of all, her client can't be sued. As a prosecutor, he was immune from this kind of litigation.

Furthermore, she says, just because Wilson can now prove that he had contacts with the CIA, it still doesn't mean the CIA approved his shenanigans in Libya.

Ms. MELINDA SARAFA (Attorney): What is clear to us is that Ed Wilson has never claimed nor has he produced evidence that he was ever authorized to ship 20 tons of C4 plastic explosives to Libya.

KASTE: And there are plenty of other people who have a hard time swallowing Wilson's portrayal of himself as a spy left out in the cold. Joseph Goulden wrote in 1985 book about Wilson called The Death Merchant. He says the CIA's contacts with him were no big deal.

Mr. JOSEPH GOULDEN (Author, The Death Merchant): The nature of the business, if you have a traveler who's been on an area of intelligence interest, a case officer is going to talk to him. And several of the guys who worked at the (unintelligible) division did talk to him. That was no big secret. But he as far as in working for the agency, no, simply not true.

KASTE: Goulden says it's also worth keeping in mind that Wilson's other convictions still stand. He's on parole right now for an attempt to hire a hit man from jail, something Wilson denies. Others familiar with his history are more sympathetic, sort of.

Mr. JOE TRENTO (Reporter): The problem is Ed is not a perfect soul. He was crooked in his heart.

KASTE: Joe Trento was an investigative reporter who's been writing about Wilson for years. Trento says of course Wilson was CIA and he was also an arms dealer. Trento says Wilson's real problem was that he didn't realize that all of this made him very expendable.

Mr. TRENTO: You can't imagine (bleep) dumb this guy is. I mean he is a brilliant guy at making money and setting up businesses. But he's the worst guy at human nature I've ever seen.

KASTE: In fact, Wilson still insists he's fond of the CIA. He says he'd sign up tomorrow as a private contractor in Iraq if only his parole board would let him. But he says he has learned his lesson on one point.

Mr. WILSON: What you got to do is you must get it in writing somewhere down the line. Not - don't put it in the their file. Put it in your file.

KASTE: Sage advice for anybody who's thinking about signing up as a secret agent.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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INSKEEP: Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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