Three years after he was tortured and slain by terrorists in Lebanon, William Buckley, chief of the CIA's Beirut station, was honored Friday by friends and colleagues at a memorial service as a top-notch intelligence officer who did not back away from risks.
The ceremony was the first public tribute for Buckley, whose sensitive position with the agency was cloaked in official secrecy for long after his abduction.
It was only during the inquiries of the Iran-Contra affair that his CIA affiliation and the circumstances of his death at age 57 finally emerged. Buckley's abduction by Islamic fundamentalists in March of 1984 greatly intensified the U.S. efforts to win the release of Americans held captive in Beirut, involving schemes that later played a part in the arms-for-hostages scandal.
"Bill's success in collecting information in situations of incredible danger was exceptional, even remarkable," CIA Director William H. Webster said at the emotional service at Arlington Memorial Cemetery.
"Risk and danger are integral parts of effective intelligence gathering. Bill Buckley understood this," Webster said. "Bill did things that none of the rest would have attempted."
The service was attended by about a hundred persons who gathered near a rose-lined grave site marked with a stone bearing Buckley's name. Although Buckley's body was never found, an infantry color guard atop white horses led a caisson carrying a symbolic flag-draped coffin along a cemetery path.
In a message read aloud at the ceremony, President Reagan said Buckley will be listed among "the heroic figures of our nation."
Buckley, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and counter-terrorism expert who served with the CIA in Syria and Pakistan, was assigned to Beirut as station chief in 1983 to rebuild the U.S. intelligence network there after the devastating Marine barracks bombing. He was abducted from his car by terrorists on March 16, 1984. In October of 1985, the Islamic Jihad announced that it had executed him, but U.S. officials believe he actually died four months earlier after extended torture.
After his capture, U.S. officials identified him as a State Department employee. In top government circles, though, his release became the chief aim of the Reagan Administration's overture to Iran to trade arms for hostages.
"Buckley's capture was of special concern to (then) CIA Director (William J.) Casey," according to last year's report by the congressional committees that probed the Iran-Contra affair. " . . . Casey wanted to spare no effort to get him back."
Those attending the memorial service included Peggy Say, sister of Beirut hostage Terry Anderson; Sophia Casey, widow of the former CIA director; Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr.; Bruce Laingen, the senior American diplomat held hostage in Tehran, and Buckley's two sisters and several nieces and nephews.
In his eulogy Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. William Beck, a longtime friend of Buckley's, honored the slain hostage as "a man who dared mighty things, enjoyed much and suffered much."