Remembering Congressman Charlie Wilson Rep. Charlie Wilson died this week at 76. Fresh Air remembers the brash Texas Democrat, who was best known for secretly arming the Afghan mujahedeen against Soviet troops in the 1980s. In 2003, both Wilson and George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson's War, spoke to Fresh Air about the covert operation.

Remembering Congressman Charlie Wilson

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The war in the 1980s between the Afghan fighters known as the mujahedeen and the invading Soviet army transformed the world. The Afghans won with arms and training supplied covertly by the CIA, and their victory contributed to the fall of communism.

But the American backing of the Afghan jihad led to many unintended consequences, which America continues to face today in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Charlie Wilson, the colorful, persuasive and persistent Texas congressman who was behind the billions of dollars funneled to the CIA to support the Afghan rebels, died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack. He was 76 years old.

The story of American support of the Afghan rebels was told by journalist George Crile in his 2003 book, "Charlie Wilson's War." In 2007, Hollywood made a film of the same name. Today, we'll listen back to Terry's interviews with the real Charlie Wilson and with author George Crile, who described our country's support of the mujahedeen as the biggest and most successful CIA covert campaign in history. George Crile died in 2006 at the age of 61, after suffering from pancreatic cancer.

Charlie Wilson was an unlikely figure to back a so-called holy war. His reputation in Congress was as a seemingly corrupt, alcoholic, scandal-prone womanizer. Let's start with a scene from the movie version of "Charlie Wilson's War." Tom Hanks plays the title role, and Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars as CIA operative Gust Avrakotos.

As we'll hear from George Crile, it was Avrakotos who got Wilson to focus on a program of covert support for the Afghan rebels. In this scene, Wilson and Avrakotos are having a drink in the congressman's office. The first person to speak is Charlie Wilson.

(Soundbite of film, "Charlie Wilson's War")

Mr.�TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Charlie Wilson) Do you drink?

Mr.�PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Gust Avrakotos) Oh, God yeah.

Mr.�HANKS: (As Wilson) Well, should we try this scotch, or is going to release sarin gas when I open it?

Mr.�HOFFMAN: (As Avrakotos) I don't think so, but open it over there.

Mr.�HANKS: (As Wilson) How did a guy like you get into the agency?

Mr.�HOFFMAN: (As Avrakotos) What, you mean a street guy?

Mr.�HANKS: (As Wilson) You ain't James Bond.

Mr.�HOFFMAN: (As Avrakotos) You ain't Thomas Jefferson. So let's call it even.

Mr.�HANKS: (As Wilson) It's a deal.

Mr.�HOFFMAN: (As Avrakotos) Since there's no other reason I should be here, let's assume because I'm very good at this.

BIANCULLI: A scene from "Charlie Wilson's War." Later in this half hour, we'll hear Terry's interview with the real Charlie Wilson, but we'll start with George Crile. Terry spoke with Crile in 2003, when his book on Charlie Wilson was published.


Now, Charlie Wilson managed to get a lot of money from the CIA for arming the mujahedeen. It's - how did he, as a congressman, manage to make that connection with the CIA?

Mr. GEORGE CRILE (Author, "Charlie Wilson's War"): With great difficulty. The CIA, at all costs, wanted to avoid having anything to do with him. They felt that he was a cocaine-sniffing, scandal-prone, skirt-chasing danger, you know, probably the most notorious, wildest man of Congress at the time. And their reaction when he came into their lives offering to increase their budget to fight a secret war in Afghanistan was to look with absolute horror at such an offer. They felt with friends like that we, you know, we need no enemies.

And what ensued was a knock-down, drag-out fight, but it was only possible because of the curiosities of Congress and his position on the Appropriations Committee.

GROSS: How important was he on the Appropriations Committee? And how did that help him?

Mr. CRILE: What you have is with the Appropriations Committee, where the money is actually spent, when you drop it down to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, you will have 11 people in the House responsible ultimately for deciding how much money the Pentagon gets, the NSA, the CIA, all the intelligence agencies. And Charlie Wilson was one of those 11.

GROSS: Now, he finally had an ally in the CIA. Who was the ally?

Mr. CRILE: A most unexpected character named Gust Avrakotos. By the time that Wilson met him, he was he was both had a very distinguished history at the CIA as a kind of - I call him the blue-collar James Bond - but also a person who had alienated most everybody. And he was very, very distressed with what he thought were the bureaucratic cowardice that had come over the CIA and the domination of the agency by lawyers.

And what happened in this case is that Avrakotos, who had been making his way in a very dramatic and bizarre fashion to a position in the Afghan task force, had encountered Wilson's attempt to force the CIA into a larger war. And without telling any of his superiors, he took off in a car, went down to Congress and entered Wilson's office, completely unauthorized, and confronted him, confronted him with the challenge that if you think you want to fight the Russians and kill the Russians more than me, you're crazy. And he did it in such a way that that made Charlie feel that maybe he might physically attack him. He's a really tough customer.

And from that moment on, the two of them began to engage in a partnership and what amounts to down-and-dirty plotting to figure out how with Avrakotos' information of what things - how things happen in the CIA and what Wilson should say using his power on the Appropriations Committee - how they could put the CIA into a box where it had no choice but to accept stunning amounts of money that they didn't want to spend. Terry, can I give you a context here?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. CRILE: You know, if you think back to that time, when this story begins, right after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas of 1979, just about a month later the Afghans are a lost cause. And the terrible scenes that were broadcast around the world of the Afghans beginning to flee their country and the beginnings of what came to be called a genocidal war were very evident, and there was nothing really that they could do to change the picture. They just had World War I rifles and hunting rifles and this ferocious fighting spirit and conviction.

But at that moment they had nothing really that could help them, other than, as in a fairy tale, they needed a heroic figure to emerge out of somewhere and magically come to their rescue, and there was such a person, curiously. But at that moment he was stepping into a hot tub in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace in the fantasy suite with two naked women with cocaine in their purses.

And it is so odd to think that this is the man, Charlie Wilson, Congressman Charlie Wilson, who will get himself out of the hot tub and pull himself together in about a year and a half after this, discover the Afghans, discover this cause, and for a period of about five years he will emerge as the centerpiece in the biggest and meanest and most successful CIA campaign in history and will be responsible for giving and making possible a total victory for the for militant Islam in the greatest jihad of modern history.

GROSS: Was the CIA very interested in supporting the Afghans? I mean, you talk in your book about how this was one war in which the real enemy, the way they saw it, the real enemy, the Soviets, could actually be directly engaged. It wasn't a war with Soviet proxies; it was a war with the Soviets themselves. Was that very appealing to the CIA?

Mr. CRILE: Yes and no, but mainly no in that they didn't want to do it in the way that Wilson and Avrakotos ultimately forced them to do it.

GROSS: Too risky?

Mr. CRILE: Yeah, much too risky. I mean, what had happened, by that year, or by that time in the early 1980s, the CIA had more or less established a pattern of conduct where they were engaged in endless war.

It was almost as if it was viewed as permanent campaigns on the fringes to contain the Soviets. And the one thing they didn't want to do is to take on any kind of provocative campaigns that could escalate into some unforeseen drama.

And in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they had no choice but to use General Zia, the military dictator of Pakistan, presidency in Pakistan, as the base of operations. And it was provocative because the United States for the very first time was supporting anti-communist guerrillas who were moving to kill Soviet soldiers.

And that had - curiously, it had never happened in the Cold War. It was the very first time that the United States actually set out to kill our enemy, to mount operations designed to kill Russians.

GROSS: Were there any concerns in Congress or in the CIA or in the Reagan administration that the United States was going to be arming Islamic fundamentalists with high-tech weapons, training these warriors how to use the weapons, while knowing that a lot of the Islamic fundamentalists hated the United States, they didn't just hate the Soviets?

Mr. CRILE: There was certainly a good deal of concern inside the CIA in the early years, when Charlie Wilson was trying to force them to escalate this war. And one of their perfectly understandable concerns was that. You know: What happens afterward? What are the unintended consequences? Is it a good idea to make this a huge war? Would it provoke a Pakistani or an attack by the Red Army, the Russians, on Pakistan? What consequences could that have? What are we going to do with all these Muslim fundamentalists? How many - what kind of weapons, what kind of training is appropriate to give to them?

And all of those questions were very real and part of the initial battle that the CIA waged to try to prevent this massive escalation, but the truth is once they got into it, once they lost the battle with Charlie Wilson and the secret partner, Gust Avrakotos, helping him from within the CIA, once they lost it, and the money started to flow in, and the war started to escalate, and the tide started to turn, the CIA became absolutely giddy and thrilled at this battle because it was the first time that they were actually setting out to kill the enemy, to engage him in a winner-take-all battle.

And no one thought that this was possible to win, but they increasingly came to think it would be. And then it happened, and for the longest time this was viewed as the great triumph of the CIA in the last campaign of the Cold War.

GROSS: George Crile, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CRILE: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: George Crile, author of the book "Charlie Wilson's War," speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. Crile died three years later at age 61. Coming up, a conversation with the real Charlie Wilson, who died Wednesday. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Charlie Wilson, the Texas congressman who helped end the Cold War with his persistent efforts in the 1980s to aid the Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviets, died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 76 years old.

In the 2007 movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," Tom Hanks played the congressman. Julia Roberts co-starred as a conservative, fiercely anti-communist Texas socialite.

(Soundbite of film, "Charlie Wilson's War")

Ms.�JULIA ROBERTS (Actor): (As Joanne Herring): So unless I'm wrong, and that would be unusual for me, you sit at the intersection of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. You meet in a sound-proof room underneath the Capitol, and you preside over a secret and unlimited budget for the three agencies you would need to conduct a covert war. Isn't that right?

Mr.�HANKS: (As Wilson) I also have seats at the Kennedy Center.

Ms.�ROBERTS: (As Herring) Isn't that how you were able to double the CIA budget for black approps in Afghanistan just by saying so?

Mr.�HANDS: (As Wilson) Why are you only asking me questions you already know the answers to?

Ms.�ROBERTS: (As Herring) Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?

Mr.�HANDS: (As Wilson) Well, it's tradition mostly.

BIANCULLI: In 2003, Terry Gross spoke with the real Charlie Wilson, who took on the Afghan rebels' cause as his own and became one of the leading figures behind their covert funding. She asked him why he felt so strongly about the Afghan cause.

Representative CHARLIE WILSON (Democrat, Texas): I was outraged, of course, Christmas of 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan for no reason other than simple aggression. And I thought that, well, this will just be another case of six weeks, and they'll pacify the country and kill all the fighters. And it'll just be another satellite.

But after several months it began to dawn on me that the Afghans, without weapons, were killing Russian officers in Kabul with knives and stones and anything they could get their hands on.

And then it became clear to me, and I think this is the most important single part of this war, 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. And so my interest was aroused there.

And after another few months, I made a trip just to see for myself as much as I could see along the border there. I had been friendly with Pakistan before this. And when I visited the hospitals and saw the children with their feet and hands blown off by the Soviet mines that had been disguised to look like toys and that sort of thing, I just became radicalized.

GROSS: Now, at the time, you were living a lifestyle very different from the Afghan mujahedeen. You were hanging out in casinos, hot tubs, relationships with beauty-pageant queens. Is there an example you can think of, of the most unusual coming together of cultures, your culture and their culture?

Rep. WILSON: Well, let's see, there certainly wasn't an example that had anything to do with alcohol, because I didn't do that in front of them. I suppose the fact that I was single at the time, and I'd been traveling to exciting and exotic places - you like to have someone to share it with - and so I suppose the fact that I wasn't married, and they saw me with different Western girlfriends was a major shock to them, although they never, never gave any evidence of it. They didn't lift an eyebrow.

GROSS: There's an expression called blowback to describe the unintended consequences of a war. What surprised you most about the blowback after the Afghan war with the Soviets?

Rep. WILSON: Well, of course, and I take my full share of the blame, but - and at the time I didn't realize how serious it was, but the United States, once the Communist government had fallen, once the Russians had left, we sort of lost interest, the United States and other Western countries. And because of that, we created a vacuum.

And Afghans in a vacuum tend to fight each other for power, and there were many of them that had been radicalized on the Islamic side from their war with the godless Soviets. So I was - it was largely our responsibility because we should have stayed there and we should have insisted that they somehow work together. We should have held out a lot of carrots and more or less forced them to work together or at least not to go to war with one another. And I was surprised by that.

The Taliban then, when they really came in and totally filled the vacuum, and many people in Afghanistan supported the Taliban that did not adhere to their religious beliefs or to their philosophy but simply because they saw them as the first chance to have order in 15 or 18 years, to not have war, I was stunned and totally surprised and felt very badly about it.

GROSS: What went through your mind on September 11th when you heard, you know, when you found out that it was Islamic fundamentalists who were behind the attacks?

Rep. WILSON: Well, I was very grievous and devastated, and somehow I knew that - I felt very badly about that. I didn't feel conscience-stricken. I just felt sad that I felt sad that - of the cruelty of the attacks, and again, the fanaticism of the attacks and the fact that they obviously were coming from radical Islam people, who I still felt that we were in great debt to many of for really driving the nail in the coffin of the evil empire. And then to see them not on our side was a tough nut for me.

GROSS: Well, Charlie Wilson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Rep. WILSON: You bet.

BIANCULLI: Charlie Wilson, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. The former Democratic congressman from Texas and the subject of the book and movie versions of "Charlie Wilson's War" died Wednesday at age 76. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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