The Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., is fronted with a cavernous lobby, one side of which has been designated the Wall of Honor. On this special wall is a display of black stars chiseled into white Vermont marble. Each of the 71 stars represents a person who died while carrying out the work of the agency since its inception in 1947.
Beneath the inscription stands a bulletproof, stainless steel glass case with a volume inside called the Book of Honor. Ted Gup, author of the eponymous study, “The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA,” notes that the document is “as sacred to the Agency as if it held a splinter of the true cross.”
In tidy black lettering, the Book lists a number of years from the past quarter-century and, adjacent, either the name of the CIA person or persons who died each year (in 33 instances) or simply a star in those cases where the agency decided that the names of the deceased must remain classified (the remaining 38 individuals).
In its eloquent simplicity, the Book of Honor is powerful testimony to the stark reality that intelligence officers face great risk as they help to defend the United States.
Mr. Gup, a reporter for The Washington Post, tells us that when he first saw the display, he asked himself, “Who were these stars? How and where had they died? What missions claimed their lives?” Unfortunately, the CIA refused to answer these questions. To the author’s credit, he was not so easily deterred.
Most important to Mr. Gup was his desire to restore the names to those marked only by a star. For three years, he threw himself into archival research, poring over death certificates, casualty lists from terrorist attacks, State and Defense departments’ personnel lists, cemetery records, obituaries and thousands of pages of personal letters and diaries. He also interviewed more than 400 current and former covert CIA officers.
The result is a compassionate and well-written portrait of some of the men and women behind the stars on the Wall of Honor. (Scholars will be disappointed, though, by the lack of documentation for the history of the agency that serves as a background for the individual profiles.)
Mr. Gup does not try to arrive at any judgment about the quality of the individuals in the Book of Honor; it is enough for him “that their names be made known and their stories told.” He evidently was unable to learn about all 71 of the honorees. Some he has nothing to say about; for others he provides only snippets of information. Even William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon who was slowly tortured to death by terrorists, and Richard Welch, gunned down by members of a Greek terrorist faction in front of his home in Athens two days before Christmas in 1975, are given only limited treatment.
This seems odd since much is already in the public domain about these brave men. Buckley’s capture and torture so angered William J. Casey, the director of Central Intelligence at the time, and his well-placed friend President Ronald Reagan, that they resorted to covert actions in the Middle East intended to save Buckley, but which instead led down the road to the disastrous Iran-Contra affair. Welch became something of a martyr during the Ford administration, as it struggled against legislative reformers who sought to restrain CIA covert actions abroad.
Eschewing a comprehensive report, Mr. Gup focuses on 14 individuals, naming each and telling their stories in some detail. The 14 are all men. Among them were daring pilots, adventurous outdoorsmen, skilled technicians, outsiders brought in on contract to the CIA, intellectuals, college dropouts, athletes and a motorcycle-riding paramilitary sniper.
All had one thing in common: Their lives were snuffed out prematurely in the line of duty. One was shot and decapitated by Tibetan soldiers who were unaware that he was a CIA officer trying to escape from China. Another rotted in a Chinese prison for 19 years as the United States refused to admit he was a spy and as he, too, resolutely resisted the Chinese promises of freedom if he would only confess.
In another instance, one of the most promising of the CIA’s young officers was killed by a Greek terrorist bombing at a restaurant in Cyprus. In yet another case, an Alabama National Guard volunteer found himself caught up in the Bay of Pigs invasion as a CIA contract officer and was asked at the last minute to fly what proved to be a fatal bombing mission over Cuba. One victim died from a blow to the head by a thief in an African village, another of a helicopter crash in Laos. Three more were involved in airplane crashes, in North Carolina, in the Congo and in Angola.
One unlucky officer had requested and received permission to depart from Beirut a day early to celebrate Christmas in the States. He flew Pan Am flight 103, blown apart by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Another CIA official was at work in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut when a terrorist drove a bomb-laden truck into the building and brought it down in a fiery explosion.
Most people who read this account will salute the men and women of the intelligence community and their colleagues in the Book of Honor. Ted Gup deserves appreciation, too, for caring enough and having the tenacity to bring us these memorable stories. Now the CIA should make public the rest of the facts and allow us to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of all these heroes.
Loch K. Johnson is a professor at the University of Georgia who worked for a 1996 CIA review commission.