For the Reagan Administration and especially the CIA, the issues of Iran and the Muslim extremists it supports in the Middle East suddenly took on a new urgency on March 16, 1984, when a man named William Buckley--described at the time as a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon--was snatched off the streets of Beirut by a group calling itself Islamic Jihad.
As his captors have since charged, Buckley was the chief of the CIA’s Beirut station, U.S. sources have confirmed. He was one of the CIA’s leading experts on terrorism, and his kidnaping initiated what one CIA official called the agency’s “private hostage crisis.” At agency headquarters in Langley, Va., Buckley’s colleagues watched helplessly as their expert on terrorism became one of its victims.
For at least a year, the CIA undertook extraordinary measures--spending a “small fortune” on informants, according to one source--intercepting communications and enhancing satellite photographs in hopes of determining where Buckley and other U.S. hostages might be held.
The effort failed. After torture and a long period of medical neglect, Buckley died in Beirut, apparently in June, 1985. His captors first declared him dead later in 1985. In a statement released in Beirut earlier this month, they reiterated that Buckley had been “executed” after having “confessed” to working for the CIA.
The statement from Islamic Jihad, whose name means Islamic Holy War, said the group had “volumes written with (Buckley’s) own hand and recorded on videotapes.” President Reagan indirectly confirmed Buckley’s death in his press conference last week, when he spoke of five American hostages in Lebanon; Buckley would be the sixth.
According to knowledgeable sources, Buckley’s death redoubled Administration interest in his fellow hostages. An order from Reagan led to intensified efforts to find and free them, the sources said.
None of the remaining American hostages have any connections--direct or indirect--to the CIA or any other intelligence agencies, according to authoritative U.S. government sources and colleagues of the hostages. Also, well-placed sources say those hostages have received better treatment from their captors, including competent medical treatment, since Buckley’s death.
A CIA Crusade
Before Buckley died, the search for him became a CIA crusade and a personal preoccupation of William J. Casey, its director. The agency never felt confident enough that a rescue attempt would be successful. It did obtain “irrefutable” evidence that Buckley was tortured and, after initially resisting, finally broke down and disclosed information about CIA operations, one source said.
For Deputy CIA Director Clair E. George, who oversees all CIA covert operations abroad, the kidnaping was personally anguishing. George had been station chief in Beirut in 1975 and 1976, at a time when two U.S. government officials were abducted and held hostage for four months before being released.
“This (the Buckley kidnaping) was like all of Clair’s bad dreams revisited,” said one source. “He just about turned the building (CIA headquarters), and our capabilities and the limits of our imagination, on end to get (Buckley) back.”
Buckley was assigned to Lebanon in mid-1983 to help the Lebanese develop methods for thwarting terrorism and to rebuild the U.S. intelligence presence after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy a few months before, the sources said. Seventeen Americans died in the attack, including Robert C. Ames, the CIA’s chief Middle East analyst and several other CIA officers.
First of Kidnapings
On March 16, 1984, he was seized on a Beirut street and spirited away--the first of what would become a string of kidnapings of Americans.
Buckley has been the least-known hostage among the group of Americans held by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. He had no wife or close family to speak for him. One source said Buckley was picked for the dangerous assignment because he did not have a family. Previously, he was in Cairo, where he had helped train bodyguards for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was later assassinated, one source said.
Terrorists might have suspected Buckley’s true identity and targeted him for kidnaping, the sources said. Buckley, who often carried a walkie-talkie in Beirut, went nearly every day to the headquarters of the Lebanese intelligence service and could have been followed, the sources said.
For a year, CIA officials, including Casey, considered reports on Buckley’s whereabouts and condition contradictory and held out hope that he might still be alive.
Assistance From FBI
At one point, the CIA received help from an FBI team trained in locating kidnap victims. The team went to Beirut but failed to find Buckley after a month of careful and sophisticated detective work, according to a senior Reagan Administration official. Officials now believe that Buckley was in Lebanon during the entire period of his captivity, most of the time in Beirut itself.
At the time of Buckley’s capture, the State Department released a brief biography, which said he was from Medford, Mass., and was a graduate of Boston University. It said he had worked as a librarian and as a civilian employee of the Department of the Army until joining the State Department shortly before he was assigned to Beirut.
Candace Hammond, of Farmer, N.C., who said she had been a close personal friend of Buckley for 10 years, said in an interview that he told her before he left for Beirut that “he wasn’t real thrilled with the assignment.”
She said Buckley had called her from Beirut shortly before he was kidnaped. “He said there was a lot of bombing, that it was a madhouse. There was shattered glass in his apartment. And he hoped he would be coming home sooner than expected because it was such a stressful situation.”
She said she received a letter from Buckley the day after he was kidnaped, thanking her for a box of Valentine gifts she had sent him. “That just about broke my heart,” she said.