Conservative standard-bearer William F. Buckley maintained ties with longtime FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover – and even earned a spot on a secret list of journalists given preferential treatment, documents show.
Buckley “is on the Special Correspondents List and is favorably disposed toward the FBI,” an agent noted in one internal document. The relationship included correspondence and meetings with Hoover, and personal tours of the FBI by top agents. The ties extended to Buckley seeking permission for an FBI informant to testify in his defense in a libel suit for accusing Yale students of being communists.
But the “Firing Line” host’s relationship with Hoover suffered a setback in 1967 when Buckley’s magazine, the National Review, published a parody claiming the FBI boss had been arrested on morals charges. Hoover removed Buckley from the special correspondents list and considered legal action, although the two later resumed a cordial relationship.
The extent of Buckley’s ties with the FBI are disclosed in nearly 400 pages of documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, which calls on the agency to release certain documents to the public once the person has died. Buckley died from a variety of ailments, including emphysema, at the age of 82 on February 27, 2008 at his home in Stamford, Conn.
A 1992 National Review article detailed some of the FBI file’s contents — the documents were obtained with Buckley’s permission by noted author and poet Natalie Robins, who also wrote about the file in her book, “Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression.” But some details from the massive file weren’t included in the National Review story.
The first substantial entry in the file came in 1949 when, as a 23-year-old student at Yale University, Buckley organized a forum where he defended the FBI’s investigations for government loyalty programs, and invited a Bureau representative to explain its practices.
A year later, the FBI showed Buckley its appreciation for what it wrote in a memo as “his past interest in the Bureau and his future benefits” by giving him and his wife, Patricia, a private tour of Bureau headquarters in Washington. The tour included a brief meeting with Hoover, inspection of crime scene labs and each taking turns firing a Thompson machine gun at the bureau’s shooting range, documents show. (In the 1992 National Review article, Patricia Buckley denied firing the gun.)
“Mr. Buckley appeared extremely well-read, cognizant of the Bureau’s responsibilities and activities in a general way,” an FBI memo said of Buckley’s Oct. 25, 1950 visit. “He commented most favorably upon our role in the government loyalty program and expressed admiration for the Director’s ability to withstand political, subversive and academic attacks.”
Much of the 393 pages obtained by the NYCity News Service deal with two background checks the FBI made on Buckley for his appointments to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information in 1969 and as a delegate to the United Nations in 1973. He easily passed the investigations and served in both positions.
The files also document an investigation into threatening letters sent to Buckley, his support for Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist platform and his public battles with liberals and Hoover critics.
A Special Correspondent
In 1953, Buckley wrote to the FBI telling the agency of his plans to write a book that would counteract critics of the Bureau’s security investigations. A year later he sent an autographed copy of “McCarthy and His Enemies” to Hoover, who responded with a note thanking Buckley for his generosity.
Throughout the next 15 years, Buckley sent Hoover his new books, met him at least once more at FBI headquarters and exchanged friendly letters. In one missive dated, April 1, 1958, Hoover described a Buckley article as “a source of much encouragement to me.” In another note from Oct. 19, 1964, he responded to a Buckley column by writing “my associates and I are indeed grateful for your support.” Buckley wrote back with a short letter that ended with “I am, as always, at your service.”
After Buckley’s second visit to FBI headquarters, Hoover sent him a copy of his book “A Study of Communism” and a picture they took together.
There is no mention in the disclosed documents about Buckley’s brief stint with the Central Intelligence Agency early in his life, something Buckley himself acknowledged later, including in the National Review. The Bureau redacted portions of Buckley’s FBI file, claiming privacy and other reasons, and at least 10 pages were withheld.
At some point, the FBI put Buckley on Hoover’s special correspondents list, which circulated information to allies who could be trusted to put the Bureau in good light. Buckley is first mentioned as being on the list in 1964.
In 1966, Buckley even approached the FBI to help the National Review, the conservative magazine he founded and edited, in a libel suit. The magazine printed a story that accused three Yale students of being communists. According to his published story, the source was an FBI informant’s testimony at a hearing for the House Committee on Un-American activities. In the FBI dossier, the unnamed informant apparently had not testified during the hearing about the three students, but did relay the information in a telephone conversation with Buckley.
Buckley asked the FBI for permission for the informant to testify in the defamation proceedings, but the FBI declined. The informant told the FBI he was prepared to confirm in court that he had relayed the information to Buckley.
The Bureau and Buckley had a falling out of sorts in 1967 after the National Review printed a parody, a facsimile of The New York Times that included a story that Hoover had been arrested on a morals charge. The FBI considered a defamation lawsuit, but didn’t pursue one.
Hoover removed Buckley from the Special Correspondents list. But Hoover didn’t stay upset for long as from then until his death in 1972, he wrote to Buckley on a few occasions thanking him for his work.
Chronicling Buckley’s Feuds
Within Buckley’s FBI files are numerous references to his public defense of conservatism and anti-communism.
In April of 1959, the Bureau sent agents to discreetly cover Buckley’s debate on “Should we Repudiate Liberalism” with New York Post editor James Wechlser at Hunter College. The agents reported the central theme of the debate was battling communism and such details as the price of tickets, which sold for $1. In a memo from 1962, an agent described Buckley at this event by writing, “he has made James Wecshler look rather silly during debates.”
There are also several references to Buckley’s infamous battles with writer Gore Vidal and his $500,000 1969 lawsuit against Vidal for defamation.
In 1972, the FBI also reported on journalist Jack Anderson’s appearance on Buckley’s television show, “Firing Line,” in which they debated government secrecy. According to the memo, Anderson argued for the right to inspect government files as long as national security wasn’t endangered.
Buckley disagreed and said Americans have no more right to inspect government files as the government has to inspect Anderson’s files. The FBI made no mention that it had been tracking Anderson and later sought to inspect the documents he had amassed as a journalist.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon named Buckley to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, a non-partisan diplomacy group. The White House requested a customary background investigation into Buckley. The FBI obtained information from Buckley’s peers and friends, including Republican Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, and reported such mundane details as a parking ticket he received at Yale.
In 1973, Nixon appointed Buckley as a delegate to the United Nations and the FBI performed another background investigation. Nearly every person the Bureau interviewed recommended Buckley with the exception of historian and Kennedy Administration adviser Arthur Schlesinger. According to the report, Schlesinger voiced concern over Buckley’s connection to E. Howard Hunt, who was Buckley’s case officer in the CIA, and later would become a key Watergate figure.
Buckley’s communication with the FBI did not end with Hoover’s death in 1972.
In 1987, Buckley turned over four threatening letters he received from a person, whose name is redacted in the files. One of the letters read: “After that stunt you better think twice before you publicly criticize anti-intellectualism elsewhere in this country…I would be delighted to kick the [crap] out of you personally. In the meantime, nasty letters are the cheapest and most effective form of communication.”
The FBI interviewed the author of the letters and sent the letters to its psycho linguistic expert for analysis. But according to the files, the Bureau didn’t take further action.
To read William F. Buckley’s FBI file, click below:
Buckley FBI File, Part 1