Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

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by George Crile, Christopher Lane
     
 

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In a little over a decade, two events have transformed the world we live in: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam. Charlie Wilson's War is the untold story behind the last battle of the Cold War and how it fueled the new jihad. George Crile tells how Charlie Wilson, a maverick congressman from east Texas, conspired with a rogue CIA operative…  See more details below

Overview

In a little over a decade, two events have transformed the world we live in: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam. Charlie Wilson's War is the untold story behind the last battle of the Cold War and how it fueled the new jihad. George Crile tells how Charlie Wilson, a maverick congressman from east Texas, conspired with a rogue CIA operative to launch the biggest, meanest, and most successful covert operation in the Agency's history.

In the early 1980s, after a Houston socialite turned Wilson's attention to the ragged band of Afghan "freedom fighters" who continued, despite overwhelming odds, to fight the Soviet invaders, the congressman became passionate about their cause. At a time when Ronald Reagan faced a total cutoff of funding for the Contra war, Wilson, who sat on the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, managed to procure hundreds of millions of dollars to support the mujadiheen. The arms were secretly procured and distributed with the aid of an out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly among the Ivy League world of American spies. Nicknamed "Dr. Dirty," the blue-collar James Bond was an aggressive agent who served on the front lines of the Cold War where he learned how to stretch the Agency's rules to the breaking point.

Avrokotos handpicked a staff of CIA outcasts to run his operation: "Hilly Billy," the logistics wizard who could open an unnumbered Swiss bank account for the U.S. government in twelve hours when others took months; Art Alper, the grandfatherly demolitions expert from the Technical Services Division who passed on his dark arts to the Afghans; Mike Vickers, the former Green Beret who created a systematic plan to turn a rabble of shepherds into an army of techno Holy warriors.

Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol, to secret chambers at Langley, to arms-dealers conventions, to the Khyber Pass, Charlie Wilson's War is brilliantly reported and one of the most detailed and compulsively readable accounts of the inside workings of the CIA ever written.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The stories George Crile tells in Charlie Wilson's War must be true -- nobody could make them up. This is a rousing tale of jihad on the frontiers of the Cold War, infighting at the CIA and horse-trading in Congress, spiced by sex, booze, ambition and larger-than-life personalities. — Thomas Lippman
The New York Times
Charlie Wilson's War is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a program that is still largely classified. Crile does not provide much insight into his reporting methods, but the book appears to be based on interviews with a number of the principals. The result is a vivid narrative, though a reader may wonder how much of this story is true in exactly the way Crile presents it. Still, few people who remember Wilson's years in Washington would discount even the wildest tales. — David Johnston
Dan Rather
Americans often ask: 'Where have all the heroes gone?' Well a lot of them come roaring through in this tour de force of reporting and writing. Tom Clancy's fiction pales in comparison with the amazing, mesmerizing story told by George Crile. By resurrecting a missing chapter out of our recent past, Charlie Wilson's War provides us with the key to understanding the present.
Gerard DeGroot
A cross between Tom Clancy and Carl Hiassen, with the distinguishing feature that it's all apparently true. . . . Throw in a middle-aged Texan belly dancer, an assortment of Congressional looinies, a few beauty queens, some ruthless Afghan rebels, and a murderous Pakistani dictator who only wants to be understood.
Christian Science Monitor
PW Daily
Crucial and timely. . . . Criles book, with its investigative verve and gripping narrative, is a comprehensive political assessment and sobering account of the power structures that run parallel to, but apparently unknown by, official government authorities.
Ken Auletta
An amazing tale, made all the more amazing because it was missed by the press. George Crile has written a book revealing the extraordinary details and intrigue of a secret war, and that alone would be a monumental achievement. But he has also written a book about how power works in Washington, about how the C.I.A. succeeded in this war but failed because it armed an ally who became our enemy, about how we might better understand Islamic fundamentalism, about how a solitary Congressman guilefully moved the U.S. government, and all of this comes with a breathtaking cast of characters worthy of a LeCarre novel. Only it's all true. And just as vivid.
Publishers Weekly
Put the Tom Clancy clones back on the shelf; this covert-ops chronicle is practically impossible to put down. No thriller writer would dare invent Wilson, a six-feet-four-inch Texas congressman, liberal on social issues but rabidly anti-Communist, a boozer, engaged in serial affairs and wheeler-dealer of consummate skill. Only slightly less improbable is Gust Avrakotos, a blue-collar Greek immigrant who joined the CIA when it was an Ivy League preserve and fought his elitist colleagues almost as ruthlessly as he fought the Soviet Union in the Cold War's waning years. In conjunction with President Zia of Pakistan in the 1980s, Wilson and Arvakotos circumvented most of the barriers to arming the Afghan mujahideen-distance, money, law and internal CIA politics, to name a few. Their coups included getting Israeli-modified Chinese weapons smuggled into Afghanistan, with the Pakistanis turning a blind eye, and the cultivation of a genius-level weapons designer and strategist named Michael Vickers, a key architect of the guerrilla campaign that left the Soviet army stymied. The ultimate weapon in Afghanistan was the portable Stinger anti-aircraft missile, which eliminated the Soviet's Mi-24 helicopter gunships and began the train of events leading to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites. A triumph of ruthless ability over scruples, this story has dominated recent history in the form of blowback: many of the men armed by the CIA became the Taliban's murderous enforcers and Osama bin Laden's protectors. Yet superb writing from Crile, a 60 Minutes producer, will keep even the most vigorous critics of this Contra-like affair reading to the end. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
This is a fast-paced and highly colored account, presumably true, of how a freewheeling Congressman teamed up with an Oliver North-ish CIA employee to funnel arms and money to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet takeover of their country. The subtitle pretty well sums up not only what the book is about, but also its literary style and its target audience. Author George Crile is a CBS television producer, and has put his Washington insider's knowledge to good use. Representative Charles Wilson (D-TX), a 60ish and undeniably handsome politician, was frequently described as a freewheeling party boy with a perennial midlife crisis. Never really a Congressional insider in spite of his longevity, he was most noted for an extremely hawkish view of foreign affairs. The Speaker of the House viewed him as something of a loose cannon, but also as someone who could be useful if he could be held in check. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought everything together. Wilson leapt into extracurricular action, making under-the-table connections and deals that raised money, bought weapons, and got them into rebel hands. In the end he not only helped the mountain guerillas but also managed to spare his party and the House Leadership some discomfort. The combination of James Bond-like action, a noble cause, and sexual escapades proves too much for Crile, and he makes the most of the story. His narrative is fast-moving, supercharged, and overheated, chock-full of high drama and sexual innuendo. In short, it is great fun. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Grove Press, 550p. illus. notes. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Raymond Puffer
Library Journal
A follow-up to "Charlie Did It," a piece on CBS's 60 Minutes that Crile produced with Robert Anderson in 1990, this book is an account of Texas representative Wilson's efforts to aid covert CIA activities to get military aid to Afghanistan's Mujahideen guerrillas, who were fighting the occupying Soviet Red Army in the 1980s. As a member of the powerful House Defense Appropriations and Intelligence Oversight committees, Wilson was in a good position to play a role in the "Great Game" and may have seen himself as a new Lawrence of Arabia. This work must be based on unacknowledged interviews with the main participants, for there is no bibliography and few reference notes; more documentation could surely have been provided. With its colorful international cast of characters, this book provides powerful background for understanding our current predicament. But while this may have been the largest covert operation in U.S. history, it was not the most important; that honor goes to Operation Bodyguard, which hid the D-day invasion plan from Hitler. An interesting and readable story that is suitable for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/02; illustrations and index not seen.]-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“A vivid narrative. . . . Charlie Wilson’s War is a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a program that is still largely classified. . . . In its time there was little dispute that the covert war was one of the most successful C.I.A. operations ever undertaken. . . . Few people who remember Wilson’s years in Washington would discount even the wildest tales.” —David Johnston, The New York Times Book Review

“Irresistible. . . . [A] thoroughly reported, painstakingly detailed and calmly written account. . . . The story of this odd and world-shaping partnership really can’t be believed until Crile and his thorough reporting gradually make it clear that yes, it all really happened. Crile also sketches a variety of other figures in this drama with an eye for what makes them strange and interesting.” —Steve Kettman, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Charlie Wilson’s War is one of the most important books ever written about U.S. government covert operations. . . . [It’s] such a sprawling tale that describing it adequately in a brief review is daunting.” —Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times

“Vibrant storytelling. . . . Crile reveals in extraordinary detail the over-the-top, under-the-table machinations of Wilson, one of Capitol hill’s ablest political bulldozers, as he spearheaded what eventually became known as the Soviets’ Vietnam. . . . [Charlie Wilson’s War] offer[s] an entirely new take on Reagan-era history with international sweep and modern implications, neatly laid over the intriguing, untold inner workings of [the CIA].” —Jan Jordan, The Houston Chronicle

“[A] glowing account. . . . Crile is . . . an exhuberant Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. . . . Criles account is important, if appalling, precisely because it details how a ruthless ignoramus congressman and a high-ranking CIA thug managed to hijack American foreign policy.” —Chalmers Johnson, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Charlie Wilson’s War reads like a best-selling novel. . . . Crile’s globe-trotting research and adroit writing have produced a vastly entertaining book that outmuscles most spy novels in its quota of sheer thrills and chills.” —John Marshall, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Crile’s real accomplishment is in telling the human story of Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas and a now-retired covert CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos. . . . [Crile] has unearthed some startling details about this chapter of our covert history, found and written about two colorful if flawed characters, and lent a great deal to a better understanding of our recent past and our troubled present.” —Edward P. Smith, The Denver Post

“A cross between Tom Clancy and Carl Hiassen, with the distinguishing feature that it’s all apparently true. . . . Throw in a middle-aged Texan belly dancer, an assortment of Congressional looinies, a few beauty queens, some ruthless Afghan rebels, and a murderous Pakistani dictator who only wants to be understood.” —Gerard DeGroot, Christian Science Monitor

“Charlie Wilson’s War conveys the sense of victory CIA leaders felt over the ‘success’ in Afghanistan. . . . Wilson himself is a writer’s dream of a main character. . . . A rollicking good tale.” —Karen Sandstrom, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“In the midst of Crile’s important expose of U.S. covert policy in Afghanistan and it’s ramifications, there’s an engrossing character study as well.” —Clay Smith, The Austin Chronicle

“A classic story of good intentions gone wrong, a comedy of can-do Americans loose in a world it really doesn’t understand.” —Charles Taylor, Salon.com

“His narrative is fast-moving, supercharged, and overheated, chock-full of high drama and sexual innuendo. In short, it is great fun.” —Raymond Puffer, KLIATT

“The subtitle here—The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times—says it all. Almost. . . . Much of the tale of getting there is only now revealed by Crile, a veteran TV producer and hell of a story man.” —Celia McGee, New York Daily News

“A helluva story. . . . [Crile] eschews highfalutin generalizations in favor of racy vignettes. This yields a riveting glimpse of the inner workings of a secret area of government.” —James Critchlow, The New Leader

“A gripping read for students of the cold war, anyone who wants the lowdown on how their tax dollars really get spent, Central Asia junkies or those who delight in cloaks, daggers and plausible deniability.” —The Economist

“[Crile] gives intriguing insight into the methods and mentality of the cloak-and-dagger business, as well as to the machinations of that handful of relatively unknown members of Congress who dominate Capitol Hill by controlling appropriations.” —Gerard A. Patterson, Pittsburg Post-Gazette

“An engrossing story of this little known and often forgotten war.” —Sterlin Holmesly, The San Antonio Express

“This I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-fiction tale has it all: a Marlboro Man handsome leading man, a parade of impossibly gorgeous women, sex, spies, copious quantities of booze and enough violence to take Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Terminator scriptwriters through several more sequels. … The story, narrated with cinematic verve by George Crile . . . is both hilarious and harrowing.” —Kathy Kiely, Arkansas Democrat

“Charlie Wilson’s War is one of those rare, priceless books about politics and history. It has the uncanny ability to uplift even the most hardened of spirits while simultaneously confirming anyone’s deepest fears about the way it all really works. . . . A masterful narrator, Crile manages to include the relevant technical data. . . .[He] offers a trenchant meditation on just how fleeting glory really is, and just how quickly the wheel of fortune can turn the other way. . . . It has more political intrigues, more suspense, more intense psychological analysis, and more technological know-how than anything Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum could fantasize about. And it has something else besides: it’s true.” —Michael Shannon Friedman, Charlotte Gazette

“Fascinating [and] entertaining. . . . What a story!” —Dennis Lythgoe, The Deseret News

“If you like tell-all books about the unbelieveable things that our elected folks can do for you, you will love this book. Charlie Wilson’s War has it all as well as an explanation about how our most feared enemy, Osama bin Laden, got his start with a little unintended help from his friends right here in the United States.” —Saralee Terry Woods, The Nashville City Paper

“A bizarre chapter of contemporary history that could have been written by Ian Fleming (it is too improbable for Tom Clancy or John LeCarre), Charlie Wilson’s War is a true tall tale of silver screen-sized characters that, for better or worse, changed the world.” —Mary Brown Malouf, The Salt Lake Tribune

“Charlie Wilson’s War shines the light on a gripping story of international intrigue, booze, drugs, sex, high society and arms deals. The last great battle of the Cold War was anything but a typical CIA program.” —Lucas Everidge, Politics Now

“One thing I especially like about Crile’s treatment of all this splendid material is his almost tender portrait of Wilson himself, warts and all. . . . It’s a whale of a tale, and I recommend it highly. You’ll never find another history that reads more like a cross between Flashman and a Tom Clancy novel.” —Molly Ivins, Working For Change

“Fascinating.” —Larry D. Woods, The Nashville City Paper

“Wilson and Avrakotos give life to an incredible story about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. . . . If there is one book to read about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and its relevance to the emergence of the Taliban, September 11th, and the war in Afghanistan, this is it.” —Craig A. Stoehr, The Northeast Book Reviews

“Put the Tom Clancy clones back on the shelf; this covert-ops chronicle is practically impossible to put down. No thriller writer would dare invent Wilson. . . . Superb writing from Crile . . . will keep even the most vigorous critics of this Contra-like affair reading to the end.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Crile offers an absorbing, thoroughly detailed look at the largest and most successful CIA operation in U.S. History. . . . [Charlie Wilson’s War is an] engrossing account of the remarkable battle that ended the Soviet Union’s hold on Afghanistan. Readers interested in the politics and cultures of Washington, D.C., and the Middle East will relish this book.” —Booklist (Starred Review)

“An engaging, well-written, newsworthy study of practical politics and its sometimes unlikely players, and one with plenty of implications.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Crucial and timely. . . . Criles book, with its investigative verve and gripping narrative, is a comprehensive political assessment and sobering account of the power structures that run parallel to, but apparently unknown by, official government authorities.” —PW Daily for Booksellers

“Americans often ask: ‘Where have all the heroes gone?’ Well a lot of them come roaring through in this tour de force of reporting and writing. Tom Clancy's fiction pales in comparison with the amazing, mesmerizing story told by George Crile. By resurrecting a missing chapter out of our recent past, Charlie Wilson's War provides us with the key to understanding the present.” —Dan Rather

“An amazing tale, made all the more amazing because it was missed by the press. George Crile has written a book revealing the extraordinary details and intrigue of a secret war, and that alone would be a monumental achievement. But he has also written a book about how power works in Washington, about how the C.I.A. succeeded in this war but failed because it armed an ally who became our enemy, about how we might better understand Islamic fundamentalism, about how a solitary Congressman guilefully moved the U.S. government, and all of this comes with a breathtaking cast of characters worthy of a LeCarre novel. Only it's all true. And just as vivid.” —Ken Auletta

“[A] riveting, beautifully researched and profoundly disturbing book. . . . Crile’s book is also an astonishing glimpse into the world of the CIA and the power of individual, cash-rich lobbies in American politics. More than anything, it is the parade of characters that is the real pleasure of the book.” —Jason Burke, Guardian (UK)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786190270
Publisher:
Blackstone Audio Inc
Publication date:
09/28/2003
Edition description:
Unabridged
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 6.80(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Charlie Wilson's War

The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
By George Crile

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 George Crile
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0871138549


Chapter One

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 background. 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 Wicker-sham 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 Third World nation to turn over fifty hostages. And then, when it finally screwed up its courage to mount a rescue mission, the whole world watched the humiliating spectacle of Desert One, as a U.S. helicopter pilot lost his vision in a blinding dust cloud and rammed into a parked plane, leaving eight soldiers dead and the rescue mission aborted.

Over and over again it was said that "Vietnam syndrome" had infected the spirit of America. And by the summer of 1980 a growing number of conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, had begun to warn that the Soviet Union might have achieved nuclear superiority, that a "window of opportunity" had been opened in which the Soviets could launch and win a nuclear war. Other voices added to the unease, claiming that the KGB had infiltrated most Western intelligence services and that they were mounting devastatingly effective "disinformation" campaigns, which were blinding America to the danger it faced.

To the president at the time, Jimmy Carter, this kind of extreme worst-case thinking had created what he called "America's paranoid fear of Communism." A born-again Christian, a onetime peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia, Carter had almost no experience in foreign affairs when he ran for president, but he had won over an American public still traumatized by Vietnam and Watergate. The intelligence scandals in the late 1970s had only reinforced the widespread suspicion that the CIA was out of control-a virtual government within the government. Vowing "never to lie" to the American public and to introduce a new morality in Washington, Carter had all but promised an end to the CIA's dirty tricks.

Once in office, President Carter moved to discipline the Agency, coming close to suggesting that it was time to stop conducting covert operations altogether.

Continues...


Excerpted from Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile Copyright © 2003 by George Crile
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

George Crile is a veteran producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II. He lives in New York with his wife and four daughters.

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Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would suggest reading 'Oliver North - Under Fire' before reading this to get a view of both sides of government. Charlie Wilson is the epitome of what scares me about politicians. I'd consider Charlie Wilson as more of a 'Sell-Out' than a hero for what he did in Afghanistan. Crile displays Charlie as this person who would go to no lengths to protect America. To me, I can't imagine any womanizing coke-head caring about anything but their own needs. Charlie goes off and defends Pakistan's right to build an Islamic bomb, which makes me view Oliver North as a saint compared to Charlie. Even though Oliver North sold arms to Iran in exchange to free the hostages and use the profits to send to Nicaragua, Charlie sold weapons, gave billions of dollars, and trained are eventual enemy. It's nice to know that coke-heads can run this country. It makes me think about the high gas prices and products and why they came about. It amazed me on how Israel played such a neutral position by providing Iran with weapons, by making special weapons for the Afghans, and by becoming involved in American politics so deeply. Israel makes me think that they care more about themselves than anyone else in the world even disregarding their own allies. There is no way that I can believe that the money to fund this Afghan program was handled properly. Charlies deep pashion for the Afghans were probably caused because of the money he was stealing from the program. The US was probably funding the Islamic bomb with this money as well. The only thing I can say bad about this book is how Crile would introduce each charcter in the same format. You will know what I'm talking about when you read the book. Also, I guess Tom Hanks is supposed to play Charile Wilson in the movie, which I find hard to believe because of Charlie's coke problem and also being 6'4 wher Hanks is only 5'10. Every paranoid idea that I ever thought about this government comes to reality in Crile's book, 'Charlie Wilson's War'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book contains an incredible story of Hedinism, Obsession, Politics, War, Good vs. Evil, and Intrigue. However, I have to wonder if the 'History' may be a bit dubious or slanted. The Author idolizes Congressman Charlie Wilson and takes effort to draw the reader into his congregation of Wilson Worshipers. But, from this 'tale', it is hard to decide if Wilson should be tried and shot, or should he be given the greatest of American and Afghan honors. Maybe, we should do both! Or, maybe he should be dismissed as an exaggerator and egotist. Either way, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves reading History and Historical Fiction. But, they should all need to keep in mind that this 'Story' may be just that, a story. I think the real fun of this book though will be in the years to come. As we watch the unfolding of the 'rest of the story' as declassification and 'deathbed testimony' reveals the Truths and Consequenses of this 'One-Man War'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Fantastic, a must read. While reading this book I laughed out loud on numerous occasions. However, not only funny, this book is an insightful look into Middle East politics. Absolutely wonderful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As I watched this happen and enjoyed the hell of it all...
USColdWarMissileer More than 1 year ago
You don’t have to read between the lines to see how Charlie & and his friends conducted an undeclared war against the Cold War Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend…” It worked both ways. Congress did not make a declaration of war to use “Afghan Mujahedeen” “freedom fighters to drive the infidel Soviets out; but they DID secretly fund it. We and Saudi Arabia, and Israel (to a degree) provided the funds, high technology weapons and training of the Mujahedeen warriors to focus on the Soviet invaders, rather than fight each other. Now that the Soviet Evil Empire is gone, years later, they have the wherewithal to destroy a new group of infidels: us-- the USA. And since we gave them everything they needed to attack us, they chose us rather than their thousands-of-years of self-slaughtering. All they needed was a new Superpower to attack. And now, we are “The enemy…” instead of their friend. All signs seem to point to the Russians as financing today’s Islamic Fundamentalists against us. Allahu Akbar!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
FASCINATING READ. GREAT CHARACTERS.
reader75LL More than 1 year ago
A must read for everyone who lives in America. Excellent author, exposing truth on our spending of tax dollars. Very good book. I shudder at all of the other potential pet projects that the US is funding. All in all, I heartily recommend the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LPullin More than 1 year ago
An interesting perspective on what started all our current problems in the middle east.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good story, could of been better edited for a shorter story.
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