Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Colby: A Spy Shaded Not in Grays Alone

The fate of William Colby would once have excited the most extraordinary suspicions. You can still find CIA veterans who suspect that the old counter-espionage chief James Jesus Angleton had been right all along, and that Bill Colby was sent by America's enemies to destroy U.S. Intelligence. But then, Angleton suspected everybody: He was investigating whether Henry Kissinger was a KGB mole when Colby finally sacked him.

Colby was an unlikely spymaster for the Cold War, a political liberal and social democrat who had helped organize gasoline workers as a young man, and who worked for nuclear disarmament after his retirement. He began his career in intelligence during World War II, when he was dropped behind enemy lines in France to lead guerilla missions.

He will never be forgiven by many CIA veterans for his cooperation with Congressional inquiries into the agency that were launched as the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon's resignation.

Nixon had tried and failed to get the CIA to join the cover-up on Watergate. To ensure that the agency was above suspicion, a long internal inquiry was launched to ascertain just when and where the CIA had broken the law. Known as "the family jewels," these secrets of assassination plots and illegal operations inside the United States were made public by Colby under Congressional interrogation.

Colby insisted he was trying to save the CIA by ensuring that it was seen to operate under the law and accept the supremacy of the elected politicians. In the process, the CIA's code of secrecy was broken, along with much of its internal morale and the careers of many of its senior figures.

Colby claimed to have acted in the best tradition of a democratically controlled intelligence service, and titled his memoirs "Honorable Men." But his work in Vietnam in running the counterterrorist Phoenix program helped blacken the CIA's reputation.

The Phoenix Operation was an attempt to counter the Viet Cong in rural areas, with the same merciless means of intimidation, bribery and selective assassination that the Viet Cong were said to use. It caused Colby to be widely denounced as a war criminal in anti-war demonstrations in the United States.

Estimates of the Viet Cong rural cadres and officials who were killed, either out of hand or after being arrested and imprisoned, ranged from 20,000 to 60,000. And while Colby always denied responsibility for any program of massacre, he later claimed to have defeated the Viet Cong, so that finally it took the North Vietnamese conventional army to defeat South Vietnam. Liberals could never forgive Colby for Operation Phoenix. Conservatives could never forgive him for unveiling the family jewels. He became a characteristic figure of the moral ambiguities of America's Cold War, a man prey to depressions, a character who could have stepped from the cloudy pages of a John le Carr? novel.

The utterly ruthless way Colby fought communists, whom he saw as Red Nazis, contended with his belief that the West was and must remain in the moral right. He never worried much about ends and means. But he did believe in democracy, and tried to sustain it after the Cold War ended.

I got to know him when we both sat on a committee that was drafting a memorandum for President Boris Yeltsin on the need to break up the KGB and establish a democratically controlled Russian intelligence service.

The last time I saw him, Colby was running a campaign to cut the Pentagon budget in half, and spend the money on schools and job training instead. An intriguing retirement for an old cold warrior.