The bombed American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, April 19, 1983

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The Spy Who Never Came in From the Cold

The horrifying death of the CIA’s Beirut station chief at the hands of Hezbollah

Gordon Thomas
May 30, 2024
The bombed American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, April 19, 1983

AP Photo

On Friday morning March 16, 1984, William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon, began his 343rd day in Beirut. He was alone in his 10th floor apartment in the al-Manara apartment building in the western suburb of the city. Beyond the windows of his living room were views of the Chouf Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. It was going to be one of those sublime days which compensated for what Lebanon had become for the few foreigners still living here: a dangerous and volatile hell hole.

Below, stretching into the distance, were a hundred and more spiraling mosque minarets. From them loudspeakers would soon summon the faithful to their first prayers.

Despite its size—four bedrooms, dining room, living room, maid’s cubicle—Buckley had insisted on keeping house himself; he hated the idea of anyone snooping through his personal belongings. Evidence of his failure to be tidy was all around him: dishes scattered casually about the living area and the laundry bag overflowing.

Undoubtedly he had much else to preoccupy him. His attempts to cultivate informants and gain information about Lebanon’s disparate political factions had met with mixed success. Part of the reason, he believed, was he still found it difficult to communicate in Arabic.

Early on in Beirut, Buckley had made contact with the senior Mossad katsa, a field agent, in the city.

A few days before this March morning, the two men had met in the George Washington café on Beirut’s seafront. They were developing plans to rescue the foreign hostages already held captive by Hezbollah in Beirut. A team of Green Berets would be flown from the United States to Tel aviv and sail with Israeli Special Forces on gunboats which would drop them off the coast of Beirut. The craft would wait offshore while the team hid in the sand dunes waiting for the “go” signal.

That would come when other Mossad agents had infiltrated into the city to place bombs outside the homes of known Islamic terrorists. The ensuing panic would be the signal for the force in the dunes to make its way into the city and join Buckley.

Dangerous and daring though the plan was, Buckley believed its element of surprise would ensure success. Besides, he had carried out similar operations in Vietnam to snatch Vietcong leaders from their redoubts. The previous day, March 15, 1984, the plan had been green-lighted in an “eyes only” coded signal to Buckley from CIA’s William Casey.

That Friday morning of March 16, 1984, Bill Buckley almost certainly followed a routine which had become part of his life.

First he placed a classical album on the stereo at the side of his bed and carried one of the speakers on its extension flex to the door of the bathroom. Shaved and showered, he dressed, selecting a short-sleeved shirt, silk tie and a gray, light-weight suit.

The clothes were another of his unbreakable habits. For the past thirty years he had bought them from Brooks Brothers in New York. He bought four suits every year, two light-weight, two medium-worsted. He remained a size 38. His ties came from the classical range of plain or muted stripes.

Having a low tolerance for silence, he moved the speaker from the bedroom to the kitchen and prepared a breakfast of orange juice, cereal, toast and coffee. He had enjoyed an identical start to the day for as long as he could remember.

The meal over and the crockery stacked in the dishwasher, he replaced the classical record with one of Dean Martin singing.

Buckley’s vision of America was that its strength was in being deliberately separate from the world.

He had met the crooner during one of his spells at Langley when he had spent a weekend at Las Vegas. One of Martin’s songs also had a more personal memory for Buckley. It was a reminder of the one woman he had established a personal relationship with. Her name was Candace Hammond and she lived in the small hamlet of Farmer in North Carolina. He had spoken to her on the phone a few days ago. He’d ended the call by saying he hoped to be home soon and then she could cook him “good old-fashioned Southern-fried chicken,” Candace would recall.

Listening to Martin singing Return to Me, Buckley prepared sandwiches, something he had done every morning in Beirut. He disliked the food at the embassy canteen almost as much as the curious stares he attracted from other diplomatic staff. He suspected they regarded him as a dinosaur, an old workhorse heading for retirement. Let them think that. With his direct communication to William Casey he was only a step away from the Oval Office. Casey had said as much. “Anything you turn up, Bill, goes straight on to the president’s desk,” was how the director had put it.

Sandwich-making over, Buckley returned to the living room. It contained the only clues to his personal life. On one wall was a framed copy of a French World War I victory poster. Candace had given it to him. They had met when he had returned from Vietnam and quickly became lovers. Over the years, she had written him scores of letters. Sunday was her day for writing. He had seldom written back, preferring to make phone calls from various parts of the world. Proof of her love was the inscription she had written across the framed portrait of her on a table in the living room: “To Bill. My fearless warrior and wonderful lover. Candace.”

In a few months he would be 58 years old. But Candace had been the only woman he had ever come close to loving. To demonstrate that, he insisted on taking with him everywhere the ever-growing bundle of letters Candace had written.

They went into the bottom of the briefcase he fetched from the safe in his bedroom. Known as a “burn bag,” it was intended at a twist of the key clockwise, the usual way of opening or closing a bag, to incinerate the contents by triggering flames from a ring of gas jets built into the base. after the letters, Buckley placed a number of files marked “Top Secret,” “Secret” or “Confidential” in the bag. The sandwiches went on top.

Buckley locked the case by turning the key anti-clockwise, then attached the bag to his wrist by a bracelet fixed to a steel chain secured to the bag’s handle.

He dead-locked the apartment door behind him and walked across the hall to the elevator. It stopped at a floor below. A man entered. He was young, well dressed and carried a leather briefcase. A few floors further down the elevator paused again. This time a woman tenant whom Buckley knew joined them. He exchanged polite greetings with her. The man did not speak.

At the ground floor the woman stepped out, wishing Buckley to “have a nice day,” no doubt proud of her grasp of American idiom. The two men rode down to the basement garage where Buckley kept his car. Normally his embassy driver would have been waiting but this morning Buckley had decided to drive himself to his appointments. He had told no one at the embassy of this violation of security; it was an unbreakable rule that no American official nowadays traveled alone in the city.

As he walked toward his car, Buckley’s first inkling of trouble may well have been the fierce blow from the man’s briefcase to the back of his head, powerful enough to leave traces of blood and hair on the hide. The attacker dropped his bag. When it was later recovered, it was found to contain several rocks. From somewhere inside the garage a white Renault drove up. There were two men in the car, the driver and his companion in the rear. He may well have assisted Buckley’s assailant to get him and the burn bag into the back of the car. With Buckley half-sprawled on the floor and the other two men squatting on top, the Renault roared out of the garage, its rear door flapping open dangerously.

The woman who had exchanged pleasantries with the CIA station chief moments before was standing at a bus stop near the garage exit. She glimpsed what had happened and started to scream for help.

Bill Buckley was not only an important and totally reliable source for me in the intelligence world, but also became a good and trusted friend. The idea of having a friend who operates in the nether regions of our society does not always sit well with the purists of our world. They regard men like Bill Buckley as belonging to a world they want no part of.

Bill was highly educated and articulate and was a gifted host. He could easily have found himself a secure place on Wall Street or some other niche in the East Coast establishment. Instead he chose to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He saw it as a real opportunity to satisfy two powerful driving forces in his psyche, a need to serve his country in a way that would satisfy that second force by giving him a life of excitement and the essential sense of danger that permeated so much of what he did. He was an authentic man’s man who regularly managed to seduce women with his old-fashioned charm and a style that the Great Gatsby would have admired.

Physically he was not exactly handsome. The angles of his face did not quite coalesce to provide a striking whole. His chin would jut at unexpected moments and his eyes were a little too close set, giving him a look of theatrical menace. To really appreciate his best physical side you had to catch him in motion, crumbling a roll for his soup or using his finger to make a point.

As I came to know him, I realized that Bill cultivated his little eccentricities and displayed them like badges of honor. He liked ties whose patterns never seemed to match his shirt or jacket. There was the long leather topcoat he wore for a while so that he looked like an extra in a wartime movie. His greatest concern was to ensure his shoes always gleamed. He could not pass a shoeshine stand without stopping for an application of further gloss.

We began to meet on a regular basis. Usually Bill would turn up with two or three staff from the embassy. The conversation was as good as the food. One night he arrived with William Colby, a quiet and self-contained man with the inquisitorial manner of a foot soldier in the Society of Jesus. He asked few questions but listened a great deal. Later Bill told me that Colby had parachuted into German-occupied France in 1944. after the war he had gone on fighting the fascists in Italy as an early member of the CIA.

Bill had a Waspish way with words. He once said the only real way to write about intelligence matters was to listen for “the murmurs in the mush.” It was his shorthand for learning about a deadly skirmish in an alley with no name; the collective hold-your-breath when an agent or network is blown; a covert operation that could have undone years of overt political bridge-building; a snippet of mundane information that completed a particular intelligence jigsaw. Later, as we came to know one another better, he convinced me that secret intelligence is the key to fully understanding international relations, global politics and terrorism.

Eventually I came to know a great deal about Bill and his own life and times.

William Buckley was kidnapped shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning, Beirut time, on March 16, 1984. Several hours passed before senior embassy officials concluded he had been abducted.

A priority signal was sent to the State Department and the Central Intelligence agency. It was still early morning in Washington.

At State, news of what had happened was given to Chip Beck who had served with Buckley in Beirut. He was “too stunned to take it in. I was having a hard time emotionally,” he said later.

The team was quickly satisfied the Hezbollah had kidnapped Buckley, and that most likely he remained somewhere in the sprawl of West Beirut.

At Langley the signal had been delivered to CIA Director William Casey’s office on the seventh floor. Years later he would recall how: “I just sat there and read the thing two, three times. Bill had been a prime asset. For three decades, on three continents, he had served the CIA and this nation with unfailing loyalty and without question. He was one of the bravest men I ever met. He was can-do, go-anywhere. He was street savvy in a way few agents were. So how the hell had this happened?”

An ashen-faced Casey asked that question of anyone who could possibly provide the answer. Receiving none, he shouted in frustration, “Find him! I want him found. I don’t care what it takes, I want him found!”

So began an operation like no other the CIA had organized. Claire George, the agency’s deputy director, was ordered to “turn the Middle East upside down.” A special in-agency committee chaired by Casey was set up to monitor the search. The National Security Agency, NSA, was ordered to provide high-resolution satellite photos of known terrorist hideouts in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley.

The intelligence services of Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom were asked to help. Every CIA station in the Middle East was ordered to treat the hunt for Buckley as a top priority. A joint CIA/FBI team flew to Beirut. Shortly afterward they were joined by NSA technicians, each a specialist in ground communications. They were to use their equipment to probe deep beneath the rubble of West Beirut where satellites could not penetrate.

In Langley, psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioral scientists, and analysts were mobilized to try and assess how Buckley would withstand being kidnapped and to get a fix on the mindset of his captors. The task was put in the charge of Dr. Jerrold Post. The fastidious, soberly dressed psychiatrist also held a senior teaching post at the capital’s George Washington University.

The joint CIA/FBI team sent to Beirut established that embassy security had not been compromised. In their first reports back to Langley, the team painted a picture of the missing agent as idiosyncratic. He had spent time cleaning mud from the inside of his car’s mudguards with a toothbrush. He kept his apartment untidy. He brought his own food to work.

The judgment infuriated Casey. He knew Buckley; they had traveled together widely through the CIA’s global fiefdom. He said later, “Buckley may have had unusual traits, but he was not a has-been.”

Yet, despite the director’s support, the feeling grew in Langley that Buckley was an “oddball,” someone who had “goofed up.”

Reconstructing what had happened, the CIA/FBI team concluded that the white Renault, with maximum acceleration, roared through the Muslim quarter and was waved past several Hezbollah checkpoints before reaching a well-prepared safe house.

Buckley was manhandled out of the car and into the house. The team was equally certain one of the kidnappers had unclipped the briefcase from Buckley’s wrist and found the key in his pocket. They could only guess if the terrorist had been able to open the burn bag correctly.

The team was quickly satisfied that Hezbollah had kidnapped Buckley, and that most likely he remained somewhere in the sprawl of West Beirut, between what remained of the heavily-shelled port in the north and the Hotel Sands to the south, near the international airport. There were simply not enough Green Berets to go in to rescue Buckley from probably the most hostile area on earth.

Former State Department employee Chip Beck recalled that within the CIA there was also a “mood that Buckley knew too much and that he could blow away a lot of people if he was forced to talk. a lot of agents were watching to see what the agency would do to get him back. There was a feeling that if Casey couldn’t rescue Buckley, then no agent was safe.”

In Langley, some of those agents remembered what had happened to Tucker Gougelmann, one of Buckley’s closest friends in the CIA. They had served together in Vietnam. When the Vietcong had swept into Saigon, Gougelmann had stayed behind in the hope of bringing out his Vietnamese wife and their small child. Within days he had been arrested. Within a month he was dead from torture. It was 18 months before the Vietcong turned over his body to the American Red Cross.

Within the agency, Buckley had never tired of saying that more should have been done to rescue Gougelmann. His claim had won him no friends within the CIA hierarchy.

Doctors at Langley continued to assess how Buckley would react to captivity. The CIA specialists concluded Buckley’s reactions would follow an almost immutable pattern.

“Even while Buckley was reeling under the blow from the briefcase, he would experience a feeling of disbelief, an instinctive denial that what was happening was actually occurring to him. That may have remained until his arrival at the hiding place his captors had prepared,” said Dr. Jerrold Post.

Desperate denial—the only immediate psychological defense response open to Buckley—would be replaced by a sudden and shattering reality. Dr. Post told me Buckley’s reactions could have included “frozen fright” and, most disturbing of all a need to talk to his kidnappers—if only to try and convince them he should be freed.

For Buckley’s captors that period was also one of critical importance. They would begin to feed back to him information they had earlier gleaned from Buckley, creating a feeling his captors were all-knowing and therefore all-powerful and that to resist them would be pointless.

A photo of William Buckley, which was distributed on October 4, 1985 by the Islamic Jihad to the press in Beirut, with a two-page typed communique announcing his execution
A photo of William Buckley, which was distributed on October 4, 1985 by the Islamic Jihad to the press in Beirut, with a two-page typed communique announcing his execution

ISLAMIC JIHAD/AFP via Getty ImagesPicture of US diplomat William Buckley, 56, distributed 04 October 1985 by the Islamic Jihad to the press in Beirut, with a two-page typed communique, announcing his execution

The CIA doctors suggested of Buckley: a man bowed down by despair, suddenly aged, his face haggard, slowed up physically and mentally, his voice monotonous and every word and movement a fearful burden. He would feel constantly exhausted and any sleep would leave him unrefreshed. He would become most depressed in the small hours—and then be at his most vulnerable, when his ability to resist every slight pressure would be at its lowest. Self-accusation would be at its most destructive and his lack of hope at its peak.

Buckley’s mental agony could be accompanied by other symptoms: loss of appetite and constipation, followed by a growing feeling the only solution for him was suicide. No one could guess how long that feeling would last but at some point would come another shattering self-discovery. Not only was resistance manifestly impossible, but so was escape. That would be the point when he might regard cooperating with his captors.

The doctors continued to make their first cautious predictions. If his captors were sufficiently clever, they would recognize that Buckley’s mood changes were part of a continuously carving-out and refilling of that inner void created by his kidnapping. Under their manipulation, his guilt could be redirected away from himself so that he would come to believe that what was important was not so much what he had done—failed to avoid being kidnapped—but what he had been: a hated “Western imperialist.”

On Monday morning, May 7, 1984, the United States Embassy in Athens received a video posted in the city. The wrapping, with its boldly printed name and address, was carefully undone and placed to one side. The VHS tape was a cheap German make commonly available throughout the Middle East. One of the mail room staff inserted the cassette in a video player. When the ambassador reviewed the tape, it was couriered to Langley.

In Casey’s office, the director and senior staff began to view the video. It showed William Buckley undergoing torture. The absence of sound made it all the more shocking. The camera zoomed in and out of Buckley’s nude and damaged body. He held before his genitalia a document marked “MOST SECRET.” It was proof the burn bag had failed.

Casey later remembered how “I was close to tears. It was the most obscene thing I had ever witnessed. Bill was barely recognizable as the man I had known for years. They had done more than ruin his body. His eyes made it clear his mind had been played with. It was horrific, medieval and barbarous.”

The tape was handed over to technicians. They enlarged frames to try and establish the background against which Buckley had been filmed. They decided it was rough-plastered stone, suggesting the filming had taken place in a cellar. The wrapping paper was the kind Mediterranean shopkeepers used to wrap groceries. The handwriting suggested the writer was semi-literate.

The agency’s pharmacologists took over. They concluded Buckley showed symptoms of being drugged; his eyes were dull and his lips slack. His gaze was of a person deprived of daylight for some time. He continuously blinked as if he had great difficulty in adjusting to what appeared to be not a very powerful photo-flood used to illuminate him for filming. They were certain Buckley had spent long periods being hooded. Buckley bore chafe marks on his wrists and neck suggesting he had been tethered with a rope or chain. a careful study of every inch of visible skin revealed puncture marks indicating he had been injected at various points.

The second video arrived 23 days later. This time it was posted to the United States Embassy on Via Veneto in Rome. The tape was air-couriered to Washington.

The video had been shot against a similar background as the first one. It revealed that Buckley continued to be horrifically treated. There was sound on the tape. Buckley’s voice was slurred and his manner noticeably more egocentric as if not only the world beyond the camera, but his immediate surroundings, held increasingly less interest for him.

The pharmacologists found it impossible to decide which drugs had been used. Any of a dozen of those powerful agents could have made him appear sedated and stupefied. His voice was fuzzy and he appeared often unable to shape words. His hands shook and his legs beat a tattoo on the floor as he mumbled pathetic pleas to be exchanged under a guarantee the United States would remove “all of its influences” from Lebanon and would persuade Israel to do the same.

Specialists tried to decide how long Buckley could survive. His last agency medical records showed he was physically fit. But no one could say how his defense mechanisms would respond to anxiety attacks, nightmares, and the overwhelming sense of helplessness. While drugs would have an enormous impact on Buckley’s mood and behavior, they might leave no permanent damage if he was recovered soon enough. The possibility gave added impetus to the plans beginning to take shape elsewhere within the CIA, in the Pentagon, the State Department and, ultimately, the White House. Casey repeatedly told colleagues they should see Buckley’s release as the agency’s personal crusade. “It is partly a matter of esprit de corps—we look after our own,” was the director’s constant refrain.

During his first weeks in captivity, William Buckley was hidden in a succession of cellars in West Beirut, each soon filled with the stench of his body waste, misery and, no doubt, fear.

On Friday, Oct. 26, 1984, 224 days since Buckley was kidnapped, a third video arrived at the CIA. The tape was even more harrowing than its predecessors. Buckley was close to a gibbering wretch. His words were often incoherent; he slobbered and drooled and, most unnerving of all, he would suddenly scream in terror, his eyes rolling helplessly and his body shaking. From time to time he held up documents, which had been in his burn bag, to the camera. Then delivered a pathetic defense of his captors’ right to self-determination in Lebanon.

Specialists reviewed the tape to try and decide whether he was already resigned to inevitable death. The specialists wondered if he had put aside the normal Christian abhorrence to suicide and overcome the memory of his formative years when, as a devout Catholic boy, he had listened to his priest speak of the hell which faced those who took their own lives. Would he remember he had been told his work permitted suicide as the ultimate means to protect the CIA’s secrets?

There was no indication the ruined figure on the video remembered that as he pleaded to live in exchange for the patently impossible demands of his captors.

In October 1985, confirmation that Buckley was dead came in an announcement by Hezbollah. Accompanying it was a photograph of his corpse, together with copies of some of the once-secret documents from Buckley’s burn bag.

The specialists tried to estimate the level of anxiety in Buckley’s voice. It was clear he could no longer confront the sheer terror of his situation. Its magnitude had overwhelmed him. For hours the specialists considered whether his words showed “true guilt” or “neurotic guilt.” They used a language no outsider could readily comprehend as they tried to make distinctions over how much in his case “the human order of being is disturbed,” and how far he might have experienced “existential guilt arising from a specific act,” in his case revealing secrets to his captors. They returned to consider whether Buckley not only accepted but yearned for the inevitability of death.

William Buckley’s kidnapping was into its second year by the spring of 1985.

The CIA consensus was that he would be blindfolded and chained at the ankles and wrists and kept in a cell little bigger than a coffin.

He would, if he was lucky, be fed twice a day: early in the morning and some time after dark. He would not know the time because his watch, like all his personal belongings, would have been taken from him.

From close study of the video other clues had emerged. His loss of weight was marked between the first and last tape, perhaps as much as 30 pounds. His drugging was evident.

How had he spent those long, dreadful hours in isolation? One way could have been to try and remember some of his training exercises, designed to help him if captured. There was the one where he had to try and recall as many passages as possible from the Bible, from his favorite books, or dialogue from a film. Anything at all to link him with the past, to remind him there was a world to return to, his psychologist/instructor had said.

Had Buckley managed to do this? Had he been able to decipher time, the passing of an hour, a half day, a day, a week, a month even?

In training he had shown himself able to calculate the hours. But a week? A month? Had he learned to cope with silence in the stifling darkness of his cell-coffin? Again, there was a way. He had been taught to recall conversations and play back in his mind both sides, his and the person he had spoken to. Again he had shown a certain aptitude for that in training. But no matter how realistic that was, it would still not match the reality of captivity.

Over the past two years, speculation had died—just as some people in Langley thought it would be best if Buckley was dead rather than he should have to go on enduring.

When his name was mentioned and his fate speculated upon, colleagues reminded each other that everything possible had been done to retrieve him. “Short of sending in the Marines to fight their way street-by-street through West Beirut, there was nothing else we could have done,” was a commonly held view.

Only in William Casey’s suite on the seventh floor of Langley had hope refused to be extinguished. He had rejected the proposal made a year after Buckley had been kidnapped that his name should be officially added to the list of CIA agents killed or missing on duty. Their fate was commemorated by small stars carved into the marble walls in the CIA main lobby. Before Buckley had vanished, there had been over 50 such stars, each representing an officer who had lost his or her life in the service of the agency. Since then a further half dozen had been added. But Casey had mumbled it was too soon to include Buckley among the display.

The director stubbornly clung to the hope that Buckley was being kept alive for a trade-off. The idea had taken root in his mind when the Israeli ambassador in Washington had told Casey that a number of Israel’s own prisoners, who had been captured in various wars with its Arab neighbors, were being kept alive in Syria and Iran as barter for future exchanges.

Encouraged, Casey had sat, often late into the night, at his desk going over all the reports on the hunt for Buckley. Reading the files, it had not been hard for Casey to imagine Buckley chained in some dungeon deep beneath the rubble of West Beirut. No satellite camera, however powerful, would be able to penetrate that far down. By now Buckley would be emaciated and probably kept in total darkness.

The focus of the search had remained on Lebanon. But in Friday prayers the priests in the mosques had given up referring to Buck-lee. His name, once on the lips of almost everyone in West Beirut, was now rarely heard.

Reports from foreign diplomats in the city all said the same thing: While the other Beirut hostages still clung to life in the bowels of the infamous “Beirut Hilton”—a series of cells scooped out deep beneath the rubble of West Beirut—of Buckley there was not even a whisper.

There had been a rumor that Buckley had been transferred to a Hezbollah redoubt out in the Bekaa Valley. another rumor said he had been secretly flown to Tehran for interrogation.

Finally there were no more rumors to track down. Even the newspapers, which had once routinely recycled old stories about the kidnapping, had no new spin to put on it.

Yet William Casey still would not allow himself to give up. Everything that made him what he was—his quality of mind, his healthy skepticism and detachment—convinced him that Buckley was better off alive than dead for his captors. as long as he lived, Buckley had a value for them.

By April 1985, Casey became increasingly attracted to the idea of using Israel to recover William Buckley. It had been done before, notably after the 1965 Suez War. Mossad’s chief, Meir Amit, had written to Egypt’s then president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, asking him to exchange two Israeli spies in return for hundreds of Egyptian prisoners-of-war captured in the Six-Day War. Initially Nasser had refused. Finally he had asked that the POWs be freed first. Amit had agreed. The Egyptians were taken by trucks to the edge of the Sinai Desert where they were transferred to Egyptian buses. Two days later the two Israeli spies were back in Tel aviv.

Casey knew there had been other occasions when similar swaps had been organized by Mossad chiefs. and none of them was more astute than Mossad’s present director general, Nahum Admoni.

While Casey knew that Admoni had a deep-seated suspicion of U.S. intentions in the Middle East, his own personal relationship with the Mossad chief was cordial.

Late in April 1985, Casey flew to Tel aviv. Admoni was at the airport to meet him.

Once Casey had settled into his Tel Aviv seafront hotel, he told Admoni the purpose of his visit: to see if Israel would go along with a deal to swap Buckley for Arab prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

Casey was to recall Admoni said it was a “no go area.” With that avenue firmly closed, Casey had asked if it was possible for Mossad to find out if Buckley was dead?

Bill Buckley had served the CIA for 30 years, joining at a time when the agency had been part of the American dream of creating a new world.

Over the next few days, Admoni had introduced Casey to some of the key Mossad operatives with up-to-date knowledge of Lebanon. They had included David Kimche who until recently had been in charge of Mossad’s “Lebanese account.” He had no doubt: Buckley was dead. Rafi Eitan, a former director of operations for Mossad, held a similar view. So did Admoni.

“Buckley’s over and done with,” Admoni said as he drove Casey back to the airport to fly back to Washington.

The news Casey had gone on for what turned out to be a fruitless mission had brought to the surface questions which had been simmering for some time in Langley.

The impression had gotten around that Casey regarded Buckley as more important than just an agent gone missing. People started to ask more pointedly what was so special about Buckley that the director, beset with a hundred more urgent and important matters, appeared to be making Buckley his special case?

There were those who recalled it had been the same when Dulles ran the CIA. In those days Buckley, gung-ho from the Korean War, had been treated like a favorite son by Dulles, given access that at the time even senior men had envied.

Others remembered the way Buckley had been allowed to operate in Vietnam. He had come and gone more or less as he pleased and set his own agenda. In the end others in the CIA had been badly burned over what America had done in that war. But Buckley had come out without so much as a stain on his character. In the closed world of Langley, that alone was enough to raise eyebrows.

A CIA officer, who agreed to talk to me on the understanding he would not be identified, said: “The blunt truth is that Buckley wasn’t liked, not liked at all. There were people who hated him at the CIA, who were glad that he went to Beirut. Now that he has vanished in that sink hole, why the hell should they go looking for him?”

More certain, a number of factors had come together to settle Buckley’s fate. He understood, better than anyone, that to survive within the agency you had to cope with the office politics, the battles for turf, the back-stabbing. His way of dealing with any of that was to fight back—hard. It had not made him popular but then, as he used to say: “I’m not running for Miss Langley Pageant Queen.” He had also acquired a record of success that was almost unmatched by any agent in the history of the agency. That had led some people to envy him.

Difficult, ruthless, short-tempered, yes, Buckley was all those things, and he made no apology for being so. Shortly before going to Beirut he had expressed his attitude to me: “I try and do my work well, but I also understand that gratitude is not part of doing it.”

By late May 1985, William Casey had finally given up hope of getting Buckley back. Oliver North, the former Marine, was the linchpin of a plan to recover all the U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. He was working closely with Amiram Nir, an Israeli counterterrorism expert. Nir’s sources had told him the decision over Buckley’s fate had been made at a meeting of the Hezbollah leadership. Nir had told North that his contacts had no other information to offer, except they were certain Buckley was now dead.

No one knows for certain when William Buckley did die. The likeliest date is sometime during the night of June 3, 1985, the 444th day of his captivity.

David Jacobson, who had been the director of the Beirut University Hospital and had been kidnapped some months before and incarcerated in the “Beirut Hilton,” believed Buckley was in a nearby cell on that night. When he was released some 17 months later, Jacobson had tried to recall what he had heard in the stifling darkness of that June night.

“The man was an American. Of that I have no doubt. But he was in a very bad way, delirious and coughing. It was hard for me to make out what he was saying because I myself was hooded. Then, in the end there was just this long silence. After a while I heard the guards shouting in Arabic and then what sounded like a body being dragged away,” Jacobson told me.

In October 1985, confirmation that Buckley was dead came in an announcement by Hezbollah. Accompanying it was a photograph of his corpse, together with copies of some of the once-secret documents from Buckley’s burn bag. The announcement added that the body would not be handed over to the United States for burial.

Casey went to the White House to break the news to President Reagan. Afterward, the two men sat for a while in silence in the Oval Office. Finally the president said: “The sooner we get all those other hostages out of Beirut, the better. Do whatever it has to take, Bill.”

The arms-sales-for-hostages deal which became known as Irangate had gone into overdrive. But what followed was for another day.

Bill Buckley had served the CIA for 30 years, joining at a time when the agency had been part of the American dream of creating a new world. He died at a time when the agency had become increasingly a bureaucracy that was driven by a belief that technocracy and qualitative analysis were the twin gods who ruled over Langley. In that world Buckley had become an outsider. Buckley’s vision of America was that its strength was in being deliberately separate from the world. The America he wanted was one of Midwestern virtues that had largely gone and the all-embracing Christianity of his youth no longer was there.

Despite being a through-and-through professional, his ideals were no longer those of his paymasters. To them there was something of a past long gone about Bill Buckley; he was like a medieval knight left alone on a battlefield that had moved on. Ari Ben-Menashe, the former Israeli intelligence officer who had briefly known Buckley, saw him “as someone who still clung to his sword while the rest of us were using laser guns, but he was a decent man who was a faithful servant of the agency and his country.”

In the intervening years since the Hezbollah announcement, there were conflicting reports that Buckley’s body had been burned or had been buried under the foundations of one of the new hotels going up along Beirut’s seafront to once more attract tourists to a city which still styled itself as the Paris of the Near Orient. When none of these reports could be verified, whispers ran through the alleys of West Beirut that the Americans would pay big money for the Buck-lee corpse.

Early in October 2002, two young Arabs drove a battered van out of West Beirut heading for the Bekaa Valley. They reached the spot they were looking for some hours later. It was marked on a piece of paper for which they had paid a substantial sum. The man who had sold them the paper had boasted he had been one of the guards who had watched Buck-lee die and had brought him to this spot for burial.

One using a pick, the other a shovel, the youths began to dig. By late afternoon they had excavated a sizable hole but had not come across even a bone. When darkness came, they dug on using the headlights of the van. Finally they gave up, realizing they had been the victims of a con man.

Almost certainly, if he had been alive, that would have brought a smile to the lips of William Buckley.

This article originally appeared in Canada Free Press on Oct. 25, 2006.

Gordon Thomas (1933-2017) was a Welsh journalist and author of 53 books.