The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah’s War against America
Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz
Berkley Press, New York, 2018, 400 pages
Book Review published on: May 31, 2019
In Beirut Rules: The Murder of a CIA Station Chief and Hezbollah’s War against America, authors Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz provide a fast-paced and informative account of the 1984 kidnapping of CIA Beirut Chief of Station William F. Buckley. While doing justice to Buckley’s memory and ultimate sacrifice, the authors place Buckley’s horrific ordeal within a series of orchestrated attacks by Hezbollah designed to force the United States out of Lebanon. In addition, the book successfully weaves Buckley’s story into a still larger narrative that illuminates the role Iran has played in the region since the 1980s.
As Burton and Katz describe the circumstances surrounding Beirut in 1984, Buckley’s kidnapping emerges as part of a series of coordinated Hezbollah operations targeting the U.S. military presence in Lebanon. The authors explain how the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut was Iran and Hezbollah’s “first shot in a declaration of war” against the United States. Other Hezbollah attacks described in the book include the Beirut barracks bombings in October 1983; the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 and subsequent killing of passenger Robert Stethem, a U.S. Navy petty officer; and the 1988 kidnapping and death of Marine Lt. Col. William “Rich” Higgins, who was deployed to Lebanon as a UN peacekeeper.
Further linking these atrocities together is Imad Mughniyeh, a rising Hezbollah leader who planned and organized many of the operations that ultimately compelled the U.S. military to withdraw from Lebanon. By 1986, Mughniyeh had become “a commander in Hezbollah’s terrorist arm and expanded the tactic of kidnapping foreigners in Lebanon; he was also named head of Hezbollah’s overseas operations and one of the key commanders of special operations against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.” The book follows Mughniyeh’s career of atrocities to 2008 and his death in Damascus, where he was assassinated by a car bomb after attending a reception at the Iranian embassy.
The authors squarely point an accusing finger at Iran and its complicity in Buckley’s murder. In general, the book describes a well-funded Iranian effort in Lebanon that supported Hezbollah with cash and through training centers set up by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps throughout Shiite enclaves in the Beka’a Valley and southern Lebanon. Specifically, Buckley would be imprisoned and tortured in one of these Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps centers: Sheikh Abdullah barracks. Burton and Katz conclude that “Hezbollah executed the kidnapping of the CIA Chief of Station, but the interrogations and torture were definitely an Iranian endeavor.”
Burton and Katz also provide their assessments of intelligence tradecraft at the time, with observations encompassing the skills of the U.S. Intelligence community, as well as those of our allies and adversaries. The Israelis are depicted as being as perplexed by the complexities of Lebanon as the Americans. There is a grudging respect paid toward the dark skills of the enemy, despite the nefarious ends for which these skills were used, for the “American Intelligence Community marveled at the tradecraft displayed by the kidnapping squad and the Iranians who protected them.” The authors do not spare Buckley himself from some criticism, quoting an agency colleague that “Buckley was incredibly cavalier about his own security.”
The book describes part of the U.S. Intelligence community’s history, notably the years immediately following the Church Committee investigations into intelligence abuses of the 1970s. Burton and Katz assess that “the CIA was still only a semblance of its once might self” after being hobbled by new restrictions imposed in the wake of the Congressional investigations. The authors bemoan what they depict as the relatively weak response of the CIA and the U.S. government to Buckley’s kidnapping. They note that there was no task force formed to retrieve him and quote the officer assigned to his case who stated that “the cables flowed and the rooms filled up with paper, while little was done effectively on the ground in Beirut, even though I had lined up several willing assets on my own.”
One weakness to the book is a tendency to take more poetic license than necessary by providing small details that the authors could not possibly know. Sentences such as “the first beads of sweat had already appeared on his brow” and “Buckley checked the contents of his Samsonite attaché case one last time before heading out the door” (describing Buckley’s actions during the morning of his kidnapping) eventually make the reader wonder if other more substantial factual gaps have been filled by the authors’ speculations. Also, as most books of this type written by former government employees, this work obviously had to go through an official prepublication review. We are constantly reminded of this, because unlike most authors, Burton and Katz chose to leave in the blacked-out redactions. While this is not without some initial dramatic effect, eventually it becomes a mere gimmicky distraction.
Nevertheless, this is a well-researched book written by two coauthors with experience in (and in writing about) the intelligence business. The authors make ample use of primary sources, interviews, and declassified U.S. government documents to explain the complex situation in Lebanon in the 1980s. In doing so, they have provided valuable context and additional meaning to the tragedy of William F. Buckley’s kidnapping.
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas