Charlie Wilson's War
eBook - ePub

Charlie Wilson's War

The Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History: The Arming of the Mujahideen by the CIA

George Crile

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eBook - ePub

Charlie Wilson's War

The Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History: The Arming of the Mujahideen by the CIA

George Crile

Dettagli del libro
Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti
Citazioni

Informazioni sul libro

Two recent events have transformed the world: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam. This is the first book to explain the link between these two occurrences. George Crile spent nearly a decade researching and writing this original account of the biggest, most expensive secret war in history: the arming of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation. Moving from the secret chambers in CIA headquarters to stand-offs in the Khyber Pass, Charlie Wilson's War is one of the most thorough and vivid descriptions of CIA operations ever written. It is the missing chapter in the geopolitics of our time.

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Informazioni

Anno
2015
ISBN
9781782397908
Argomento
Storia
1 A HOT TUB IN LAS VEGAS
When Congressman Charlie Wilson set off for a weekend in Las Vegas on June 27, 1980, there was no confusion in his mind about why he had chosen to stay at Caesars Palace. He was a man in search of pure decadent pleasure, and the moment he walked into the hotel and saw the way the receptionists were dressed, he knew he had come to the right place. No doubt there were other members of the Ninety-sixth Congress who fantasized about orgies and altered states. But had any of them chosen to take the kind of plunge that Charlie Wilson had in mind, you can be sure they would have gone to some trouble to maintain a low profile, if not don a disguise.
Instead Charlie strode into the lobby of Caesars almost as if he were trying to imitate his childhood hero, Douglas MacArthur, majestically stalking ashore to take back the Philippines. He looked in no way ashamed or uncertain about what he was doing in this center of gambling and entertainment.
In truth, it wouldn’t have been easy for Wilson to fade into any back-ground. Six foot seven in his cowboy boots, he was handsome, with one of those classic outdoor faces that tobacco companies bet millions on. And he just didn’t have the heart or the temperament to operate in the shadows; he felt like a soldier out of uniform when he wasn’t wearing his trademark bright suspenders and boldly striped shirts with their custom-designed military epaulets.
Moreover, Wilson had never been able to shake the politician’s impulse to take center stage. He covered ground rapidly, shoulders back, square jaw jutting forward. There were no volume controls on his voice as he boomed out greetings with astonishing clarity—and people in the Caesars lobby turned to see who was making such a stir. He looked like a millionaire, but the truth was, after eight years in the Texas legislature and almost as many in the House, he had nothing to show for his efforts but debt and a $70,000-a-year government salary that didn’t come near to supporting his lifestyle.
Along the way, however, Wilson had discovered that he didn’t need money of his own to lead a big, glamorous life. The rules governing Congress were far looser in those days, and he’d become a master at getting others to pick up the tab: junkets to exotic foreign lands at government expense, campaign chests that could be tapped to underwrite all manner of entertainments, and, of course, the boundless generosity of friendly lobbyists, quick to provide the best seats at his favorite Broadway musicals, dinners at the finest Parisian restaurants, and romantic late-night boat parties on the Potomac.
All of which explains how the tall, charismatic congressman with the blazing eyes and the ever-present smile had grown accustomed to moving about the world with a certain flair. And so as he arrived in Las Vegas, he was observing his hard-and-fast rule that whenever he traveled, he went first class and tipped lavishly. The bellhops and receptionists at Caesars loved this, of course, and Wilson, in turn, appreciated their outfits: little white goddess robes showing lots of cleavage for the girls, and Roman togas and sandals for the bellhops.
In all of Vegas, there was no place like Caesars Palace in 1980. It was the first of the great hotel emporiums to be inspired by the fall of a civilization. Its promoters had had the genius to recognize that the sins of Rome could seem far more enticing than any contemporary offering; and as the young Roman in the toga whipped out the gleaming, two-inch-thick golden key to the Fantasy Suite, he opened a door designed to lead even the most pious of visitors straight to hell.
Charles Nesbitt Wilson comes from a part of the country very familiar with Satan. The Second Congressional District lies in the heart of the Bible Belt, and it may well be that Wilson’s Baptist and Pentecostal constituents spend more time worrying about sin and wrestling with the Devil than just about any other group of Americans. jesus is the lord of lufkin reads the huge sign in the center of the district’s biggest city where Wilson maintained a house, on Crooked Creek Road.
The congressman did at least have one dim justification for being in Las Vegas that weekend. He could say he was there to help a constituent: the striking twenty-three-year-old Liz Wickersham, former Miss Georgia, fourth runner-up in the Miss America contest, soon-to-be Playboy cover girl, and, later, host of a CNN talk show that an admirer, Ted Turner, would create specifically for her. The free-spirited Wickersham was the daughter of one of Wilson’s main fund-raisers, Charlie Wickersham, who owned the Ford-Lincoln dealership in Orange, Texas, where Wilson always got special deals on his huge secondhand Lincolns. When Liz moved to Washington, her father asked Wilson to show her around, which he did with great enthusiasm. He even took her to the White House, where he introduced her to Jimmy Carter, proudly informing him that Liz Wickersham had won the Miss Georgia beauty contest the very year Carter had been elected president. There was never any question that Wilson would go all out to promote the career of his friend and fund-raiser’s attractive young daughter. Now, in Vegas, he was doing just that—orchestrating an introduction to a producer who was casting for a soap opera.
A few months earlier, a young hustler named Paul Brown had approached him about helping to develop a Dallas-type TV series based on the real political goings-on in the nation’s capital. It wasn’t long before Brown had convinced Wilson to invest most of his savings—$29,000, and to sign on as the show’s consultant. The reason for the Las Vegas weekend was to meet a big-time Hollywood producer who, Brown claimed, was eager to back the project.
It was a giddy moment for Wilson and Liz as they sat in the Fantasy Suite talking about a deal that was all but iced. Brown had already persuaded Caesars to comp the congressman’s stay, and now he was making Charlie and Liz feel like they were the toasts of the town. He had brought up some pretty showgirls, and before long the whole party was acting as if they were part of a big-time Hollywood mogul’s entourage, knocking back champagne as they congratulated one another on the deal that was about to be signed and the role that Liz was about to land.
Two years later, teams of investigators and federal prosecutors would spend weeks trying to reconstruct exactly what the congressman did that night after Paul Brown and the other hangers-on left the Fantasy Suite. It almost landed Wilson in jail. And given the very high wire he later had to walk to avoid indictment, it’s quite astonishing to hear the way he cheerfully describes those moments in the hot tub that the investigators were never quite able to document. No matter how much hellish trouble it later caused him, the congressman leaves the unmistakable impression that he relished every single moment of his outrageous escapade.
“It was an enormous Jacuzzi,” he recalled. “I was in a robe at first because, after all, I was a congressman. And then everyone disappeared except for two beautiful, long-legged showgirls with high heels. They were a bit drunk and flirtatious and they walked right into the water with their high heels on … The girls had cocaine and the music was loud—Sinatra, ‘My Kind of Town.’ We all mellowed out, saying outrageous things to each other. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder. It was just tremendous fun—better than anything you’ve ever seen in the movies.”
As Wilson later framed the episode that almost brought him down, “the Feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale—and I ain’t telling.”
Other middle-aged men have brought young women to the Fantasy Suite for activities not unlike Wilson’s. But ordinarily there is something a bit desperate and tawdry about such aging pleasure seekers. It’s unlikely that any of them would be able to talk about their debauchery in such a way that it would sound almost fresh and innocent. Charlie Wilson, however, had a genius for getting people to judge him not as a middle-aged scoundrel but instead as if he were a good-hearted adolescent, guilty of little more than youthful excess.
This survival skill permitted him to routinely do things that no one else in Congress could have gotten away with. One of the first to marvel at this unique capacity to openly flaunt the rules was the young Diane Sawyer, who met Wilson in 1980 when she was just beginning her career as a network correspondent. “He was just untamed,” she recalled, “tall and gangly and wild—like a kid before they discovered Ritalin. He had this ungoverned enthusiasm, and it extended to women and the world.”
The congressman was like no one Sawyer had met in Washington. He was simply outrageous. Sawyer recalled the experience of driving with Charlie in his big old Continental on one of their few dinner dates: “Going down Connecticut Avenue with him, I felt as if we could have been driving into any American Graffiti hamburger place.”
When Wilson was first elected to Congress, he’d persuaded a distinguished college professor, Charles Simpson, to leave academia and sign on as his administrative assistant. Simpson says Wilson was the brightest person he’s ever worked with: “He had an uncanny ability to take a complex issue, break it down, get all the bullshit out, and deliver the heart of it. There’s no question he could have been anything he wanted to be. His goal was to become secretary of defense. Certainly he intended to run for the Senate.”
But Simpson gradually came to believe that his boss had a fatal flaw. That failing was perfectly summed up in a fitness report written by Wilson’s commanding officer in the navy in the late 1950s: “Charlie Wilson is the best officer who ever served under me at sea and undoubtedly the worst in port.”
There was little question in Simpson’s mind in those days that his boss had a drinking problem. As with many alcoholics, it was not immediately noticeable; Wilson had an uncanny ability to consume enormous quantities of Scotch and seem unaffected. Also, he was a happy drunk who told wonderful stories and made everyone laugh. On the occasions when drinking would get to him, Simpson says, “Wilson would simply lie down on the floor for an hour, wake up, and act as if he had just had twelve hours of sleep. It was the most unreal thing I’d ever seen. He’d do this at his own parties—just sleep for an hour with everything going on around him, then get up and start again.”
Most of the 435 members of Congress lead surprisingly anonymous lives in Washington. They are, of course, celebrities of sorts in their own districts, but the reality of life in the capital is that all but a few will leave Washington without much of anyone knowing they had been there. Wilson, in contrast, had begun to attract a great deal of media attention by the early 1980s, albeit the kind that any other politician would have considered the kiss of death. The gossip columnists called him “Good-Time Charlie,” and they had a good time themselves describing the parade of beauty queens he escorted to White House receptions and fancy embassy parties. One Texas newspaper called him “the biggest playboy in Congress.” The Washington Post featured a picture of Wilson and House Majority Leader Jim Wright saddled up on white horses, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue to a nightclub Wilson had just invested in. The Dallas Morning News observed that there were more congressmen on the floor of Wilson’s disco, Élan (“a club for the dashing” was its motto), than you were ever likely to find on the floors of Congress. When challenged about his lifestyle, Wilson replied good-naturedly, “Why should I go around looking like a constipated hound dog? I’m having the time of my life.”
In truth, at age forty-seven, in his fourth term in office, Charlie Wilson was completely lost. Public officials are forever doing stupid things, but they don’t step into hot tubs with naked women and cocaine unless they are driven to play Russian roulette with their careers. And it was hard not to conclude that this recently divorced congressman was a man in free fall, programmed for disaster.
Wilson himself would later say, “I was caught up in the longest midlife crisis in history. I wasn’t hurting anybody, but I sure was aimless.” If Charlie Wilson’s midlife crisis had thrown him off course, it was nothing compared to the crisis America was going through. The night Wilson checked into Caesars Palace, Ted Koppel had opened his Nightline broadcast with a disturbing refrain: “Good evening. Tonight is the two hundred and thirty-seventh night of captivity for the hostages in Tehran.” The United States, with its $200 billion annual defense budget, couldn’t even force a taunting ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. My Enemy’s Enemy
  2. Copyright page
  3. Dedication
  4. Epigraph
  5. Contents
  6. Author’s Note
  7. Introduction: A Strange Award at Langley
  8. Chapter 1
  9. Chapter 2
  10. Chapter 3
  11. Chapter 4
  12. Chapter 5
  13. Chapter 6
  14. Chapter 7
  15. Chapter 8
  16. Chapter 9
  17. Chapter 10
  18. Chapter 11
  19. Chapter 12
  20. Chapter 13
  21. Chapter 14
  22. Chapter 15
  23. Chapter 16
  24. Chapter 17
  25. Chapter 18
  26. Chapter 19
  27. Chapter 20
  28. Chapter 21
  29. Chapter 22
  30. Chapter 23
  31. Chapter 24
  32. Chapter 25
  33. Chapter 26
  34. Chapter 27
  35. Chapter 28
  36. Chapter 29
  37. Chapter 30
  38. Chapter 31
  39. Chapter 32
  40. Chapter 33
  41. Chapter 34
  42. Epilogue: Unintended Consequences
  43. Source Notes
  44. Acknowledgments
  45. Index