Colby: The Man Who Told the Secrets

David Wise is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million" (HarperCollins)

In the 20 years since President Gerald R. Ford fired him as director of the CIA, William E. Colby was shunned and reviled by many of his former colleagues because he cooperated with congressional and other investigations of illegal and improper activities by the spy agency. There is a great irony in this, because Colby, by his actions at the time, probably saved the CIA from self-destructing.

The agency’s troubles began after the Watergate break-in in 1972, when it was revealed that several of those arrested had CIA backgrounds and that the agency had provided the famous red wig and other espionage paraphernalia that E. Howard Hunt Jr., one of the burglars, used on an earlier clandestine mission for the Nixon White House. As the storm gathered, James R. Schlesinger, who served briefly as CIA director before Colby, ordered all CIA employees to report any activities that might have violated the agency’s charter. Colby, who became director in September 1973, inherited the 693-page list of agency misdeeds, known as “the Family Jewels.”

They were the worst skeletons in the CIA’s closet. The list included assassination plots against foreign leaders, drug tests on unsuspecting Americans, opening of first-class mail and Operation CHAOS, a program of domestic spying on Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam.


Soon, Seymour M. Hersh, then of The New York Times, broke the Operation CHAOS story. The agency began to unravel; first, the Rockefeller Commission, then special Senate and House investigating committees delved into the agency’s chamber of horrors.

Colby was faced with two choices. He could stonewall and cover up, or he could cooperate and tell at least some of the truth. He chose the latter course, probably knowing it would mean the end of his career. But Colby had concluded that in a democracy, secret agencies must still be accountable.

He did his best to minimize and explain away the CIA’s excesses, and he certainly did not tell Congress everything he knew. But he told far more than the White House or the agency could stomach. At one point, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whose commission was supposed to be uncovering intelligence abuses, drew Colby aside and asked: “Bill, do you really have to present all this material to us?”

Six years ago, when I was researching a book about the CIA victims of counterintelligence chief James J. Angleton, whom Colby fired, I spent long afternoons talking to Colby in the garden of his Georgetown home. In one conversation, he recounted how Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger had, albeit jocularly, echoed Rockefeller’s sentiments.

It had occurred, Colby said, in the White House Situation Room, during a meeting to map strategy to deal with the investigations. Aware that Colby was a practicing Roman Catholic, Kissinger turned to him and said: “The trouble with you, Bill, is that whenever you go up on the Hill, you think you’re going to confession.” For the White House, the last straw occurred when Colby brought a CIA poison-dart gun to a hearing of the Senate committee. The gun’s tiny, almost invisible darts, he testified, were designed to kill people, presumably with the shellfish toxin or cobra venom that he said the agency had stockpiled. Photographs of the chairman, Sen. Frank Church, brandishing the weapon were published around the world. Less than two months later, Ford fired Colby.

In the eyes of his detractors, Colby committed other sins. The CIA’s counterintelligence staff never forgave him for firing Angleton in 1974. In his 20 years as head of the agency’s CI staff, Angleton had destroyed or damaged the careers of dozens of loyal agency officers in his obsessive search for a high-level Soviet mole inside the CIA who, by all available evidence, did not then exist.


Colby told me why he had dismissed the legendary counterintelligence chief. “If you find a reason to reject everyone you want to recruit,” he said, “you don’t have ops. Jim thought the fact you can get at a potential Soviet agent means he’s being manipulated from the other side.”

Angleton was bitter, and used his murky skills against his adversary. Rumors, fueled by at least one of Angleton’s former staff members, spread around town and into print that Colby was the mole. It is doubtful that anyone, including Angleton, believed that, but Colby found it necessary to deny publicly that he was a Soviet mole.

There was another reason that the agency’s old guard could not forgive Colby. When he was CIA director, an internal investigating team reported to him that one of his predecessors and mentors, Richard M. Helms, had lied to Congress about the agency’s role in opposing Chile’s president, Salvador Allende. Reluctantly, Colby referred the matter to Justice. Helms eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress.

Until the agency’s time of troubles, there was little in Colby’s background to suggest he would break the CIA’s code of silence. He was, in fact, a quintessential Cold Warrior.

But there were a few small hints of unorthodoxy. Although a graduate of Princeton and Columbia Law School, Ivy enough, Colby was not typical of the rich, faux Anglicans who populated the higher echelons of the CIA’s clandestine service. His father, Elbridge Colby, was a maverick Army officer who had converted to Catholicism. There wasn’t much money.

During World War II, Colby joined the OSS and parachuted behind Nazi lines in occupied France and later in Norway, where, on skis, he eluded German patrols to blow up rail lines. After the war, he joined the CIA, serving in Scandinavia, then in Italy, where he helped the agency funnel millions to the Christian Democrats during the 1950s. In Vietnam, he ran the controversial Phoenix program in which more than 20,000 Viet Cong were killed. Colby, much-criticized over Phoenix, admitted that at least some of those who died may have been “executed” after interrogation and capture.


As a spy, Colby cultivated an image that fit his definition of the perfect spy--a “gray man, so inconspicuous that he can never catch the waiter’s eye in a restaurant.” And then he disappeared.

His last vanishing act--an apparent canoeing accident in which he presumably drowned--was somehow fitting for a man who spent most of his career in the shadows, trying to be invisible. Yet, two decades ago, when the unwelcome glare of public scrutiny fastened upon him, Colby, better than many of his peers, realized there was no place to hide, that there were no shadows in the light.*