William E. Colby (1920–1996) former CIA director, Colby was thought to have damaged the CIA’s reputation by cooperating with congressional investigations and disclosing information many felt should have remained covered, in order to pacify critics of the agency.
William E. Colby was the most controversial director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He became director in 1973, when, for the first time in the agency’s history, it had to explain its actions to hostile critics. Hoping to put the agency’s problems behind it quickly, Colby decided to cooperate with congressional investigations. For a time he so demoralized the CIA that his harshest critics inside the agency argued that even if he were a Soviet agent he could not have done more harm.
William Egan Colby was born on 4 January 1920 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the son of an army officer. The family moved around a lot and spent three years in China. After graduating from Princeton University in 1940, Colby entered law school at Columbia University. He dropped out to enter the army, becoming a lieutenant in the paratroops. He later joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and participated in commando missions behind German lines in France and Norway in 1944 and 1945. Colby returned to Columbia after the war and entered the law profession in 1947. In 1950, bored by his law practice, he joined the newly created CIA.
Strategic Hamlet Program
Colby’s first years in the CIA were spent abroad under the cover of the State Department. He served in Stockholm, Sweden, for two years and in Rome, Italy, for five. In 1959 Colby went to Saigon as head of the CIA’s operations in South Vietnam. There results were mixed. He moved South Vietnamese peasants into what were called strategic hamlets in an unsuccessful effort to deprive the Vietcong guerrillas of bases from which to operate. He had better luck recruiting Vietnamese Montagnard tribesmen to fight alongside the United States. In 1962 Colby returned to the United States to become chief of the Far East division of the CIA’s plans directorate. He oversaw much of what the CIA was doing in Vietnam.
In 1968 Colby returned to Saigon, technically on leave from the CIA, to direct Operation Phoenix, a State Department- administered ‘‘pacification’’ program developed by the intelligence agency. Supplied with a force of some five thousand American troops, Colby was charged, in what became a famous phrase, with winning the hearts and minds of the people, ostensibly through the establishment of health and social service programs. But it was the counterterror aspect of the program that made Colby and his sometime boss Robert W. Komer notorious. Designed to destroy the infrastructure of the Vietcong’s operations in South Vietnam, the Phoenix counter-terror operation quickly degenerated into a series of massive episodes of destruction, torture, and assassination in which American and South Vietnamese troops killed to fulfill quotas and to settle old scores. Before it was discontinued in 1969, almost 29,000 suspected Vietcong were captured, 18,000 were persuaded to defect, and 21,000 were killed. While the CIA was not directly responsible for the killings, it clearly condoned them.
In 1970 the Phoenix program came to the attention of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the center of congressional opposition to the war. Senator Frank Church, who headed a 1975 investigation into the agency, regarded Phoenix as evidence that the CIA was a rogue elephant on a rampage, ‘‘uncontrolled and uncontrollable.’’ Cooler analyses consider Phoenix a well-conceived program clumsily executed. It earned Colby a reputation as a tough, ruthless operator with religious intensity, extremely dedicated, but with too little imagination. After he became CIA director Colby conceded that there had been excesses and many innocent people had been murdered, but most of the deaths — more than 85 percent — came in clashes between American and Vietnamese troops.
CIA Director, 1973
Returning to the United States in 1971, Colby was reassigned to covert operations, where he had spent his entire career except for the Phoenix years. In 1972 he became the CIA’s executive director-controller and in March 1973 director for operations, responsible for covert activities. Two months later President Richard M. Nixon chose Colby to succeed James R. Schlesinger as CIA director. At his Senate confirmation hearings that summer, Colby found himself caught in a fire-storm. In the past the CIA had enjoyed a certain immunity on Capitol Hill and rarely underwent close examination. But Congress had heard of various agency misdeeds, and Colby had to answer for them. He agreed that the CIA had no business gathering intelligence in the United States, and that the agency had erred in helping one of the men charged in the Watergate break-in. Moreover he declared he would resign if ordered to engage in anything illegal. He was confirmed as director on 4 September 1973.
CIA Re-organization and Congressional Investigation
As CIA director Colby seemed to experience a major change of heart, what his enemies even called a personality change, caused in part by the attacks he received for Phoenix and in part by the anguish he experienced over the terminal illness of his oldest daughter. He came to believe that if he cooperated with congressional critics and made a clean breast of matters, the easier the CIA could go about its legitimate business. His decision to go public aroused a bitter controversy within the agency; its staff was already demoralized over budget cuts, a reorganization, and firings instituted by Schlesinger. To many Colby’s going public was incomprehensible, even if the agency was culpable. Colby’s strategy was more clever than it first appeared. Since Congress would learn its secrets anyway, it was better that the agency control how the story got out.
Colby had already ordered an in-house investigation to assemble a list of every CIA operation that had been in violation of its charter. Later known to the press as the ‘‘Family Jewels’’ and within the agency as the ‘‘Skeletons,’’ the list filled 693 typed pages. On 22 December 1974 the New York Times broke a major story that the CIA had spied on the antiwar movement, igniting an intense two-year public scrutiny of the CIA. Colby released the Skeletons list in sanitized form. The House and Senate initiated several investigations, and President Gerald R. Ford named Vice-president Nelson A. Rockefeller to head another inquiry.
The dirt was out. The most damaging revelations concerned assassination attempts against various foreign leaders — some were successful. But it was soon clear that while Colby’s cooperation was tarnishing the agency, he was doing a better job of tarnishing the reputations of previous presidents, John F. Kennedy especially. Colby admitted that the CIA had erred, but he never confessed that the agency was to blame. It had never been a rogue elephant, and it had always followed presidential orders. Colby’s cooperation probably headed off legislation limiting the agency’s activities. Though it was demoralized and the scope of its covert activities was strictly curtailed by the political climate, the agency suffered no lasting damage.
Colby’s tenure as CIA chief was marked by another development. Disclosure that the CIA had illegally opened mail gave Colby the excuse to fire James J. Angleton, the 20- year head of the agency’s counterintelligence efforts who was charged with ferreting out infiltrators. Angleton was brilliant, paranoid according to some, and his suspicions that the CIA had been penetrated by a high-level Soviet agent eventually paralyzed the agency. He suspected everyone. Colby decided the agency would be better off without him and the mail incident was Colby’s excuse to let him go.
Failures of CIA Analysis
While the airing of the dirty laundry focused on covert operations, the agency’s analytical capabilities were also under attack. The CIA had failed to anticipate developments such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In 1975 critics of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union charged that the CIA did not possess accurate information of Soviet capabilities, limiting its ability to detect Soviet violations. The dispute had a political dimension. Ronald Reagan, getting ready to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, charged that the United States was tolerating Soviet violations as a way to undermine the entire Nixon-Ford foreign policy toward the Soviets. There was also a bureaucratic consideration, for the CIA traditionally issued fewer doomsday scenarios than the Pentagon’s analysts. Their estimates usually kept expenses in mind.
Colby responded with the A Team/B Team evaluation of the Soviet Union’s capabilities and intentions. The A Team was composed of the CIA’s own experts. They were matched against outside experts, all conservative, anti-Soviet hardliners, many of whom would receive positions in the Reagan administration in 1981. The B Team concluded that the Soviets were pursuing a policy of global domination and had a credible first-strike war-winning military capability. Its report helped shape Reagan’s defense policies.
Ford fired Colby on 2 November 1975 as part of a general housecleaning of his administration. The firing was regarded as inevitable. It signaled an end to disclosures and investigations. The energy behind the need to reveal and come clean had spent itself. Had Colby chosen not to be so forthcoming or attempted to justify what in retrospect should not have been undertaken, two courses many in the CIA urged upon him, Congress may have responded by curtailing certain operations. Instead, Congress created more oversight committees. Also Ford ordered the agency not to engage in political assassination.
After he left the CIA he worked in the Washington, District of Columbia, office of the New York law firm for which he worked before he joined the CIA. Retired from government duty, Colby diversified his activities. In addition to practicing law, he became active in a campaign against the nuclear arms race of the 1980s, speaking out with former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. He also founded the American Committee for a Free Vietnam, an organization that focused on the development of a democratic Vietnam and the strengthening of human-rights within the country.
Shortly before his death in April of 1996, Colby was marketing a CD-ROM game about espionage and counterterrorism, a project he developed with former Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Kalogin. Colby died suddenly, apparently of drowning, while on a solo canoe trip on the Wicomoco River.