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Manhunt by Peter Maas (Random House: $17.95; 301 pp.)

May 18, 1986|David Johnston | Johnston is a Times staff writer

The next time Col. Moammar Kadafi expresses his hatred of America by making war on tourists, remember Edwin P. Wilson, renegade CIA agent whom the Company didn't want to control. Wilson, with associates including Pomona businessman Jerome Brower and Mormon Bishop Reginald Slocombe of Houston, conspired to ship Kadafi 41,000 pounds of C-4 plastique, an explosive so powerful that it took only a few ounces to blast four passengers out the fuselage on TWA Flight 841 a few weeks ago.

Wilson and other friends provided the gun, via a volunteer fire department in the Carolinas, that Libyan-paid assassin Eugene Tafoya used to blow away a Kadafi critic in Colorado. Wilson even tried to get Kadafi the Bomb.

In all of this, author Peter Maas ("Serpico") shows that Wilson had an accomplice--witting when he was being trained in the modern techniques of warfare on civilians (read: terrorism), unwitting when he turned renegade profiteer. That accomplice? Uncle Sam.

"Manhunt" provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Wilson. The picture is far from complete because Maas' sources and the public record could not provide a rounded story. Nonetheless this is an important work worth serious attention.

In "Manhunt," Maas shows how the intelligence community in the Reagan as in the Carter Administration either didn't want to see what Wilson was doing or looked the other way while he supplied Kadafi with enough explosives to continue killing American vacationers into the next millennium.

Only when a couple of determined agents from the little-known Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms pressed for action--and some reporters not addicted to reciting the official version of events wrote about Wilson's deadly business--did the U.S. government stir, slowly, to action. Even then, Maas reports, a tenacious but unfocused federal prosecutor named Larry Barcella had to fight Reagan Administration appointees and civil service bureaucrats who were more concerned with appearances than with catching Wilson, who is now spending the rest of his days in federal prison.

"Manhunt" is frightening because it also shows how endemic corruption has become in America, how some Pentagon officers sell out their oaths for money and how the defense and intelligence communities utterly fail to control profiteers unless and until someone outside the system raises hell.

The book contains plenty of implied criticism of the American press as lapdog rather than watchdog. It also takes some extraneous shots at Seymour Hersh, the nation's most competent investigative reporter and one of the first to take a look at Wilson's deadly deeds, because Hersh wouldn't give Maas the time of day.

Most disturbing, "Manhunt" shows how Kadafi's terror squads learned their deadly work and got their explosives not from Moscow, as President Reagan keeps stating without challenge, but from Americans trained in the techniques of terrorism-as-modern-warfare by the U.S. government.

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