Leslie Cockburn

Leslie Cockburn

Leslie Cockburn was born in San Francisco. Educated at Yale University and the University of London, Cockburn began working for CBS News in 1978. She is a producer for 60 Minutes and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

In 1987 Leslie Cockburn published Out of Control, the story of the secret war in Nicaragua and the Contra-Iran scandal. The book resulted in her winning the George Polk Award.

Leslie Cockburn has produced and directed dozens of documentaries for CBS and ABC News, and was a correspondent for four years for PBS's Frontline. She has reported on the Gulf War, the war in Central America, the drug wars in Colombia, the uprising against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Khmer Rouge guerrilla war in Cambodia, the war in Afghanistan, and the troubles in Kurdistan and Somalia.

Other books by Leslie Cockburn include Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the US-Israeli Covert Relationship (1992), One Point Safe (1997) and an autobiography, Looking for Trouble (1998). Cockburn has also been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Primary Sources

(1) Mark Riebling, The Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 (2002)

North's first plan was to ransom Buckley before he could be tortured into revealing CIA secrets. He made contact with some DEA informants, heroin traffickers in the Middle East, who claimed to be in touch with Buckley's captors. But the Agency would not put up any money unless it got proof that North's sources were telling the truth. The Bureau meanwhile worried that use of its funds to pay drug dealers might violate U.S. law. North therefore went around both agencies, appealing to Texas superpatriot and billionaire gadfly Ross Perot, who in ig8o had financed a successful private rescue attempt of U.S. citizens from Iran. With $100,000 down and the promise of $2 million to follow, North proposed to bankroll a joint CIA-FBI operation, which would ideally culminate on a yacht off Cyprus, where Buckley would be swapped for cash. Clarridge was in favor of using the Perot money, but Revell initially expressed his disapproval; the plan seemed like a violation of American policy, which was not to deal with hostage takers. Revell discussed the idea with Webster, who similarly disliked it. Because the operation was going to take place outside the U.S, and under the auspices of a private donor, the FBI, after expressing disapproval, did not try to stop it. But before the project could get under way, good coordination between CIA and FBI proved that North was being snookered. After North's informant visited Beirut and returned with a newspaper on which Buckley's initials were allegedly scrawled, CIA submitted the handwriting to FBI lab for analysis. Their conclusion: the handwriting was not the station chief's.

(2) Leslie Cockburn, Out of Control (1987)

On March 16, 1984, William Buckley, officially described at the time as a diplomat attached to the U.S. embassy, was kidnapped off a Beirut street by elements of Hezbollah, a fundamentalist Shiite group with strong links to the Khomeini regime.

Buckley was no ordinary diplomat. He was the CIA station chief in Beirut, and an official with some specialized responsibilities and connections. As Oliver North later testified, Buckley was "an expert on terrorism" involved in a very "sensitive" job before he left Washington for Beirut. North stated that in the course of his antiterrorist work he had developed a "personal" relationship with CIA Director William Casey. Other sources report that Buckley was an old associate of Theodore Shackley, who, it may be recalled, had reportedly had a hand with Edwin Wilson in running a program for eliminating hostile terrorists. Indeed, Buckley had had to approve CIA assassinations undertaken by the Shackley organizations.

Losing Buckley to Hezbollah was bad enough, but anguish in Washington turned to consternation when it was learned that Buckley was being tortured to reveal his copious fund of secrets. It did not take long before familiar figures from the Shackley-Clines secret network began to get involved in this new crisis. On April 2, 1984, less than three weeks after Buckley's disappearance, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138. This authorized the creation of a new counterterrorism task force charged with planning the rescue of hostages held by Iran (as well as "neutralizing" terrorist threats from Iran, Libya, and Nicaragua). The new group was reportedly to be headed by retired Gen. Richard Secord. Though Secord denies any association with the task force, Pentagon sources confirm it, adding that the directive was drafted by Oliver North.

By November 1985, Theodore Shackley had entered the fray on behalf of his old associate Buckley. On November 22 the Blond Ghost reported to the CIA that he had just met in Hamburg with Gen. Manucher Hashemi, the former head of SAVAK's counterintelligence division. Hashemi had introduced him to Manuchehr Ghorbanifar, who, as Shackley speedily informed the CIA, was another SAVAK alumnus with "fantastic" contacts in Iran.

The basic topic of this meeting-following some high-minded sentiments about "moderates," the desirability of a "meaningful dialogue with Washington," and "destiny" was to discuss arms shipments, specifically American TOW antitank missiles. Shackley, in his cabled report on the meeting to the CIA, said that Ghorbanifar "further suggested the possibility of a cash ransom paid to Iran for the four Americans kidnapped in Lebanon, including Buckley, who, he said after making telephone calls, was still alive. The transaction could be disguised by using Ghorbanifar as a middleman." Shackley reported that Ghorbanifar needed a response by December 8, 1984. As Shackley told the Tower Commission, the State Department replied later that month, in effect, "Thank you but we will work this problem out via other channels."

(3) Joseph Trento, Prelude to Terror (2005)

On November 19, 1984, Shackley met Hashemi at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hamburg, and Hashemi introduced him to Manucher Ghorbanifar, a former SAVAK agent and arms dealer. Ghorbanifar opened the three days of negotiations with Shackley by suggesting that the United States trade some TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles for some Soviet military equipment captured by Iran from Iraq. He then suggested that four hostages captured by terrorists in Lebanon could be traded through Iran in exchange for cash. Because one of these hostages was Shackley's old friend and colleague William Buckley,6 the Station Chief of the Beirut CIA office, Ghorbanifar got Shackley's serious attention. Shackley would later deny that he told Hashemi or Ghorbanifar that he was in Hamburg in any official capacity. But Shackley did not deny that he wrote an urgent memo about his multiple meetings with Ghorbanifar, which he distributed to the State Department and the vice president's office.

Before he left Germany, Shackley met with CIA officials at Frankfurt Base, who informed him that Ghorbanifar had a history of failing Agency polygraph tests and fabricating information. According to William Corson, "None of it mattered to Shackley. He proceeded to recommend he be used as a conduit to the Iranian regime. He did it because Israeli Intelligence had suggested it."

Shackley's reputation and influence with Bush overcame Agency objections to Ghorbanifar. Shackley's memo was delivered to Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters at the State Department. Michael Ledeen later said that, in May 1985, he asked for and received a copy of the memo and gave it to Oliver North, without, he claimed, ever reading it himself. The result, despite the CIA's reluctance to deal with Ghorbanifar, was that Israel, acting as an intermediary, actually provided TOW missiles to Iran. However, William Buckley's life was not spared in exchange. Buckley died after being tortured by SAVAMA, the new Islamic Iranian government's intelligence service. Before he died, Buckley gave up the names of hundreds of CIA agents around the world.

(4) Jack Anderson, Peace, War and Politics (1999)

When differences arise between a columnist and a newspaper, the smart columnist would rather lose the argument than lose the paper. Such a case involved the kidnapping of CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley by the pro-Iranian extremist group Islamic khad. Buckley was the first American taken hostage in a string of terrorist acts by Lebanese disciples of the Ayatollah Khomeini. My partner Dale Van Atta's intelligence sources told him in late 1985 that Buckley had been tortured to death that spring after surviving a year of savage interrogation in Lebanon. He had been disguised as a wounded soldier of the Iranian revolutionary guard, Pasdaran, and flown to Damascus in a Syrian helicopter. Intelligence reports indicated he had been loaded on an Iran Air 727 and flown to Tehran. The brutal torture continued in the basement of the Iranian foreign ministry; several times Buckley was hospitalized. The last time, lie suffered three heart attacks and died.

Islamic Jihad bragged about having "executed" Buckley in retaliation for an Israeli air raid on the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Tunis. They even circulated a grisly Polaroid photo of Buckley in a coffin. But the official story coming out of the White House and the CIA then was that Buckley was still alive and that the negotiations for his release were ongoing.

We wrote a column announcing Buckley's death and sent it out for publication on December 12, 1985. When the column was printed in the Washington Post, their reporter covering the Buckley story, the capable Watergate veteran Bob Woodward, told his editors it wasn't true. Clearly Woodward had excellent sources, but if they were telling him that Buckley was still alive, then they were either dreaming, or they were lying while they scrambled to do damage control for the secrets that Buckley had divulged under torture. We later learned that Buckley's revelations filled four hundred pages recorded by his captors. The transcript became hot property for the Iranians. Palestinian terrorist George Habash tried several times to buy it or trade weapons for it.

The Post at first refused to run our follow-up columns on Buckley. Each time, when we would call the editors and argue the veracity of our sources, the editors would side with Woodward. Finally, we cut a deal with the Post that whenever we mentioned Buckley in a column, it would be written in such a way that they could take out that reference and the rest of the information would still stand up. That worked until we wrote a column summarizing the number of American hostages killed by Iranian agents, with details on each case. When the Post took out the reference to Buckley, the numbers didn't add up, and readers called to complain about my math.

The Post finally capitulated, in a roundabout way. On November 25, 1986, as the Iran-Contra scandal was unfolding nearly a year after we had reported Buckley's fate, Woodward wrote a front-page story announcing Buckley's death by torture. The story made no mention of the fact that we had been reporting that information for a year.