This Week in History: CIA agent kidnapped in Lebanon

Buckley kidnapping was one of the final bitter affairs for US in Lebanon, after Hezbollah killed 241 US troops.

Kidnapped CIA agent (photo credit:
Kidnapped CIA agent
(photo credit:
Shortly after 8 a.m. on March 16, 1984, like every other morning, CIA station chief in Beirut William Buckley left his 10th floor penthouse apartment in the western part of the city for the American Embassy. On that morning, he had decided to drive himself to work, against regulations for US officials in Lebanon at the time due to the danger of kidnapping. All non-essential staff and diplomats’ family members had been evacuated from the country a month earlier.
As recalled at the time by the manager of Buckley’s apartment building, the CIA officer walked out of the building that morning and got into his car, parked in an adjacent lot. Almost immediately after leaving the parking lot, a white Renault in front of him stopped short and forced him to a stop. A gunman walked up to Buckley, pointed a pistol at his head and put him into the Renault without a fight. Aside from in two disturbing videos sent to US diplomats in the following months, he would never be seen alive again.
Buckley’s kidnappers whisked him through the city, divided into sections controlled by various militias, to a predetermined safehouse. The carefully planned operation was the work of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh.
The CIA and other US intelligence agencies were quickly tasked with locating the station chief and various foreign spy agencies – including the Mossad, which presumably had a significant presence in Beirut at the time – were approached for assistance. Aside from the desire to get their agent back alive, CIA officials were worried that Buckley might compromise other agents and intelligence assets in the country were he to be tortured.
The top secret documents he was carrying in a “burn bag” latched to his wrist at the time of the kidnapping were just as worrisome. The CIA knew that while a mechanism that would ignite its contents if opened incorrectly protected the “burn bag,” it was far from foolproof. A bit of ingenuity or coerced instructions on how to open it could easily bypass the self-destruct mechanism.
Indeed, the Agency’s fears that the bag’s contents might be compromised would soon be realized.
After months of hearing nothing from or about Buckley, a US embassy received a package containing a video of the kidnapped CIA officer. Appearing disoriented, physically exhausted and beaten, Buckley was shown lying on the floor naked, holding a file marked “Top Secret” to cover his genitals. The kidnappers had managed to open the burn bag.
Another video was sent less than a month later, showing Buckley in an even worse condition. According to interviews with CIA sources, forensic experts who examined the video identified puncture marks on Buckley’s body indicating he was being regularly drugged. The experts concluded he had undergone long periods of torture, shackling and was being held in a makeshift cell with no light. There was little hope he had been able to withstand the torture long enough to protect US intelligence secrets.
Buckley died in Hezbollah captivity sometime the next year, although the exact date is unknown. On October 3, 1985, an organization calling itself Islamic Jihad (not Palestinian Islamic Jihad), a precursor and early branch of Hezbollah, announced they had executed the American. However, other captives held by the group at the time later estimated he died of medical problems some five months earlier. Due to the long period of time that passed before his body was recovered and repatriated, it was impossible to determine the time or cause of his death. Only after the discovery of his body in Beirut in 1991 was he returned to the US for burial in late December 1991.
The Buckley kidnapping was one of the final bitter affairs of American activity in Lebanon, coming only months after Hezbollah bombed the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US troops. But it was also central in one of the most botched and controversial affairs of American involvement in the region.
Less than a month after Buckley’s kidnapping, then-US president Ronald Reagan signed an order that put in motion what would become known as the Iran Contra Affair. Justified as a program to barter the release of American hostages held by Iranian-linked Hezbollah, the program saw the United States sell Iran missiles through Israel in exchange for the release of kidnapped Americans in Lebanon. By the time the first such sale was made in August 1985, however, Buckley was already dead.