THERE ARE A LOT of words one could use to describe former congressman Charles Wilson--drunkard, sleazy, womanizer, patriot--but the one that most comes to mind in my dealings with him was simply "persistent."
Wilson, whose role in supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s has become the stuff of a best selling book (Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile, a long-time CBS news producer) and now a ticket-selling movie success of the same name, was a tall, lanky populist Democrat from East Texas. Wilson had first been elected to Congress in 1973 and, by the time the Afghan war had broken out, by hook and by crook, he had made his way well up the seniority ladder of the all-powerful House appropriations committee. It was there he could protect aid to Israel, keep money flowing to Somoza in Nicaragua, and--eventually--pour money into the "covert war" the CIA was quasi-supporting and quasi-directing in Afghanistan.
I say "quasi" because the Agency, especially in the early 80s, was letting the Pakistanis call many of the shots when it came to running the war and was as often as not applying the brake to folks who wanted to up the ante when it came to fighting the Soviets. CIA's analysts were insisting that the Soviets could not possibly lose the war, and the folks from the operational side at Langley were saying: "Let's bleed 'em, but let's not start World War III either."
Before I had ever met Congressman Wilson, I had of course heard of him. I was from Texas, and Wilson was already a legend there for partying and his ability to bring home federal money to his East Texas constituents. He had helped pull Rep. John Murtha's bacon out of the fire during the ABSCAM investigation while a member of the House ethics committee and had been rewarded by the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, with even more of a free hand on the defense appropriations subcommittee.
As Crile and others tell the story, Wilson first got involved in the Afghan war through a girlfriend and Houston socialite Joanne Herring, who had been named an honorary consul for Pakistan. After a visit to Pakistan, the Afghan border, and a meeting with Mohammed Zia, Pakistan's dictator, Wilson returned to Washington and began to turn on the spigots for both Zia and the mujahedin.
Initially, with support from the outside increasing, the Afghan rebels were eating up the Soviet forces: thousands had been killed or wounded, hundreds of aircraft lost, and thousands of tanks and other vehicles destroyed. But, not willing to go down easily, Moscow ratcheted up the fight by deploying elite special forces (Spetsnatz) to Afghanistan and adding the Mi-24D (Hind) attack helicopter to the fight. The Hinds in particular were devastating, and the fight seemed to be turning in the Soviets favor.
Back in Washington, the issue for those of us who wanted to increase support for the rebels was what could be added to their arsenal to help defeat the Hinds. The older, out of storage, surface-to-air missiles that the CIA and others had been providing them were, at best, only marginal effective. Eventually, through the efforts of officials in Weinberger's Pentagon--especially Fred Ikle, the then undersecretary for policy--modern American surface-to-air missiles (Stingers) were sent, providing a devastating and ultimately critical counter to the Soviet military machine in Afghanistan.
Before that decision was taken, however, Wilson had decided all on his own that the mujahedin needed the portable anti-aircraft weapon made by Oerlikon, the Swiss arms manufacturer. Capable of spitting out rounds at several hundred a minute, the weapon could throw a blanket of lead against low-flying attack helicopters and planes. Using his position on the subcommittee, Wilson put language in the annual defense appropriations bill that required the Pentagon to "reprogram"--that is, turn over--$40 million of its monies to the Agency to buy a couple of the weapons and the ammunition to go along.
But, before that money could be turned over, the budget rules required in this case that both the chairmen and ranking members of the two relevant Senate committees (armed services and intelligence) literally sign off on the reprogramming. And it is here that I first ran into Charlie Wilson, the persistent Charlie Wilson, in early spring of 1984.
As the minority staff director of the Senate's intelligence committee at the time, Wilson needed my boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), to ok the deal. He also needed the approval of Sen. Sam Nunn, then the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, whom I also served as an advisor on issues that crossed over our two committees' jurisdictions. His first step was to call me and ask me to get their signatures for the reprogramming.