William Egan Colby – Captain, United States Army Director, Central Intelligence Agency

From contemporary press reports:William E. Colby (4 January 1920-28 April 1996), intelligence officer, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of Elbridge Colby, an army officer and educator, and Margaret Mary Egan Colby, an ardent Catholic who guided her son in the path of that religion. William Colby was also influenced by his father's liberal views and by the family's peripatetic movements to locations as diverse as China and Vermont, where he studied at Burlington High School. He attended Princeton University, where he felt himself to be an outsider, educated as he had been at public schools and presenting, at five feet, eight inches, topped by eyeglasses, the appearance of a young man unlikely to win acceptance through athletic prowess. He graduated with an A.B. in 1940.

In 1941 Colby joined the U.S. Army and in 1943 the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS trained him for special missions, and he served behind enemy lines in France and Norway. In an effort to prevent German troops from being redeployed through Norway to be used against advancing Allied forces in Germany, he led the raid to destroy the Tangen railroad bridge–a daring and spectacular success, though the bridge was soon rebuilt.

In 1945 Colby married Barbara Heinzen; they had four children. He obtained a law degree from Columbia University in 1947, the same year that Congress approved the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After working for a short time in a law firm, Colby in 1949 joined the new agency. He served in Stockholm (1951-1953) and then in Rome (1953-1958), where he helped to arrange the secret subsidization of political parties to prevent communist electoral victories. Most of the recipients were centrist or slightly left of center, a political alignment that proved effective in combating communism but that gave Colby the reputation of having endorsed the “opening to the Left.”

Colby was CIA station chief in Saigon from 1959 to 1962 and headed the agency's Far East division from 1962 to 1967. Then from 1968 to 1971 he directed the Phoenix program in South Vietnam, which sought to identify and eliminate communist activists (the Viet Cong) at the village level. Colby felt that the program was superior to the use of military force, which he believed was too blunt an instrument and alienated the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, estimates of the number killed under Phoenix range as high as 60,000 people. (Colby put the number at 20,587.) Phoenix has also been defended on relativist grounds–the Viet Cong assassinated nearly 40,000 of their enemies in the period from 1957 to 1972. But none of these arguments could prevent the program from becoming a focal point of the antiwar movement. Although Colby maintained that the deaths characteristically arose in combat and not as a result of cold-blooded murder, critics of Phoenix labeled it an assassination program and a crime against humanity.

After Phoenix, Colby rose within the CIA's Washington bureaucracy, and on 4 September 1973 President Richard Nixon appointed him director of the agency. During his tenure the press and Congress turned on the CIA, accusing it of crimes and misdemeanors ranging from assassination plots to espionage against Americans at home. When in 1975 both houses of Congress set up inquiries into the activities of the intelligence community, Colby offered significant if limited cooperation. For example, he handed over to the Senate committee chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church details of the CIA's recent operations against the left-leaning government in Chile. The agency's attempts to sabotage the Chilean economy had contributed to the downfall of South America's oldest democracy and to the installation of a vicious dictatorship. Colby's candor on such matters shocked colleagues in the CIA, some of whom never forgave him for opening up the activities of what was, after all, a secret agency. His only daughter, Catherine, had died after a painful illness in April 1973, and colleagues speculated that the tragedy unlocked what some regarded as Colby's already overdeveloped Christian conscience. Though he strenuously denied that his daughter had opposed Phoenix, perhaps Colby did want to atone for his part in the program. It is also clear that he disapproved of certain of the CIA's activities that he called “deplorable” and “wrong” and wanted them stopped. In any case, he realized that a display of flexibility in his dealings with Congress would increase the agency's chances of survival.

With CIA morale at a low ebb, Colby's enemies began to line up. On the Left, a coalition of muckraking journalists, Vietnam War critics, and ambitious legislators refused to give him credit for attempting to open up the agency. On the Right, conservatives such as Barry Goldwater disliked Colby's liberalism and concessions to the Church committee. Colby had become politically vulnerable, and on 30 January 1976 President Gerald Ford replaced him with George H. W. Bush. Colby had introduced some significant reforms, such as the prohibition of assassination as an instrument of national policy and the practice of informing select members of Congress about the CIA's activities, but his intelligence career was over.

Colby's life continued to be eventful. In 1978 he published his memoir, Honorable Men, in which he defended himself against the Left over Phoenix and against the Right over his decision to clear the air while director of the CIA. In 1982, following the enactment of stringent secrecy legislation in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government began proceedings against Colby for making unauthorized disclosures, in the French-language edition of his memoir, about American efforts to retrieve secret codes from a sunken Soviet submarine. His agreement to pay a $10,000 fine in an out-of-court settlement barely covered the cracks between Colby and his enemies on the Right.

In 1984 Colby divorced his first wife and married a former diplomat, Sally Shelton. He had resumed legal practice and lectured widely, taking up a new cause–the campaign for a freeze on nuclear arms. On a spring day in 1996, Colby went down to the waterfront near his weekend home in Rock Point, Maryland, and launched his canoe into a stiff breeze. Until his body was found several days later with no evident signs of foul play, the press had one more chance to speculate about the fate of a man whose manner of death seemed to conjure up the enigma of his life.

May 14, 1996

The remains of former CIA Director William Colby were buried with military honors Monday at Arlington National Cemetery. After a private service for family and friends, an urn bearing Colby's ashes was transported by horse-drawn caisson to its final resting place in a clearing surrounded by maple and pine trees.

Army marksmen fired a 21-gun salute, and a bugler played taps as a flag was presented to Colby's wife, Sally Shelton-Colby. Colby, 76, disappeared April 27 while canoeing near his Rock Point, Maryland.,vacation home. His body was recovered eight days later.

Autopsy finds Colby likely collapsed before falling out of canoe: May 11, 1996

Former CIA director William Colby died from drowning and hypothermia after apparently collapsing from a heart attack or stroke and falling out of his canoe, the state's medical examiner said Friday.Colby's body was found Monday after an eight-day search that included helicopters, divers, dogs and sonar equipment. Colby, who disappeared April 27 while canoeing near his waterfront home in southern Maryland, was found lying facedown in a marshy riverbank.

An autopsy found that Colby, 76, had suffered from hardening of the arteries, Chief Medical Examiner John Smialek said in a statement.

The death was ruled accidental, rather than from natural causes, because even though there was evidence Colby was ill before falling out of the canoe, in the final analysis it was the drowning and hypothermia that killed him, said Jeannette A. Duerr, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature.

No blood clots were found, although they could have dissolved during the week-long search for his body, the medical examiner said.

The autopsy also showed that Colby had died a short time after eating, and that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.07 percent due to having wine with dinner. No drugs were found in his system, the medical examiner said.

Colby capped a long career in intelligence by serving as CIA chief from 1973 to 1976 in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

A private funeral service was to be held Monday at Arlington National Cemetery where he will be buried with full military honors. A public memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral.

From  a contemporary press report:

May 5, 1996Former CIA director William E. Colby wasn't the sort of fellow who liked to be addressed as “Mr. Colby.”

“Call me Bill, please,” he asked in his affable way.

In his last media interview April 23, four days before he collapsed and drowned while canoeing near his southern Maryland weekend retreat, the ex-spy chief appeared more youthful and vibrant than you might imagine a 76 year-old should look like who began his long intelligence career as a commando parachuting behind Nazi lines with the Office of   Strategic Services in WWII. Nor did Colby seem beaten up by his extensive experiences in both the Vietnam War and the Cold War, two terribly different yet impossibly intertwined American conflicts.

“I've been lucky,” Colby said, smiling modestly, insufficiently summing up on the streets of Washington his life and CIA career. It was appropriate to chat with the retired spymaster over a cup of espresso at a sidewalk cafe near The White House; Colby would insist on paying, of course.

Besides his tenure as director of central intelligence in the early seventies, Colby may be best known as the head of the CIA's Far East Division during the hottest period of the war in Vietnam.

For nearly 15 years, starting in the late fifties, Colby ran the CIA's covert operations in Southeast Asia, including the notorious Phoenix Program, designed to ferret out the Communists' political infrastructure in South Vietnam. In later congressional testimony, Colby admitted the program had assassinated over 20,000 of these suspected agents.

“I've defended [Phoenix] as a necessary element of the war,” Colby said. “The communists, curiously enough, say it was the most effective program ever used against     them… The Phoenix, I always thought, was not all that effective. But if you have a secret mafia inside your population you better find out who they are, and that was what Phoenix was all about, to identify who they were. And if so, [they should] either be captured, convinced to surrender, or in a fight, shot. It was a war.”

In seeming contradiction to the bloody and corrupt tactics of that assassination spree, there is evidence to support the notion that Colby wanted to help the Vietnamese people. He supported the broader Pacification Program, which encouraged and helped villagers to protect their hamlets rather than live as refugees and see their homes destroyed by Viet Cong attacks — or American bulldozers.

“We would take people out of the refugee camps and put them back in their old villages, put some protection around them, give them some guns to protect themselves, begin to rebuild the village, or the bridge, or the irrigation ditch or whatever was necessary, and they would start up their lives; really decent lives. That was the strategy [of the Pacification Program],” Colby said.

After leaving the Republic of Vietnam and the battles that ultimately consumed the small nation, Colby continued to ascend the ranks of the CIA. The well-known architect of many of the Agency's dirtiest tricks became more and more open about them. When appointed director, he revealed so much to Congress that some of his colleagues whispered that Colby must be a KGB asset. President Gerald Ford soon dismissed him from the job after only two years, in order to appease the critics.

Of the nagging conspiracy theories suggesting CIA involvement in President John F. Kennedy's assassination — Colby was in Vietnam in November 1963 — the former director said: “Oliver Stone came to see me once to get the material released that the CIA had, and I said I believed in releasing it, maybe save the names of a couple of agents.

“Believe me, if the CIA had anything to do with the murder of our president I would have discovered it in the early seventies and I would have revealed it — I revealed a lot of other things.”

Bill Colby was the perfect product of an age where honor meant honesty, and a  bone-crushing handshake meant more than just a simple greeting. It explained character.

Arguably, however, Cold War super-spies such as Colby helped to perpetuate the pop culture cliches which molded entertainment icons such as James Bond and Mission Impossible in the movies and on TV, and this in turn shaped how we think of the trenchcoat life. The champagne socializing, slicked-back hair and natty dress (intentionally a little plain in the case of Colby) all were perceived attributes of the high-profile Intel-operatives of his era.

And so, to some it was no surprise that the normally low-key Colby recently consulted on a project in which he also starred — a CD-ROM adventure game called Spycraft.

Colby said the game's plot was realistic and proved the need for good intelligence in the post-Cold War era.

“The premise [of the game] is, you are a CIA officer and you're told a Russian presidential candidate has just been assassinated,” Colby explained. “The President of the United States is next on the hit parade.”

A realistic scenario in 1996? American presidents have been assassinated before, Colby pointed out. “It could happen tomorrow.”

For Spycraft, Colby teamed up with Major General Oleg Kalugin, the former chief of KGB foreign  counter-intelligence, who now lives in Washington. Both men portray themselves in the game, and each help the player in solving the mystery.

Greeting Kalugin at my office after the interview, Colby invited the Russian to “visit my dacha on the river. It's almost warm enough.” It was from this dacha on Maryland's Wicomico River that Colby ate his last meal.

Regarding his conciliatory attitude toward a former Cold War adversary, Colby said: “We fought the British; we fought the Spanish; we fought the Germans; we fought the Japanese. Now they're our best allies. I'd like to see that kind of relationship develop with the Russians in the years ahead.”

As I sat down with Kalugin, Colby wished everyone well and left. Moments later, I realized I had forgotten to ask him to autograph a copy of Spycraft and ran down a flight of stairs to intercept him. I ran out onto the streets again and looked for him up and down the empty blocks. But, true to his nature, the old spy had simply vanished into the day.

William Egan Colby

  • 4 September 1973-30 January 1976
  • BIRTH 4 January 1920, St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Princeton University, B.A., 1940;
  • Columbia University, LL.B., 1947
  • APPOINTED 10 May 1973 by President Richard M. Nixon; confirmed by Senate, 1  August 1973; sworn in, 4 September 1973
  • Lt. Gen. Vernon A. Walters, US Army
  • Volunteered for active duty as 2nd Lieutenant, US Army, August 1941
  • Served with Office of Strategic Services, 1943-45
  • Attorney in private practice, New York, 1947-49; with National Labor Relations Board, Washington, DC, 1949-50
  • Various posts in CIA
  • Chief, Far East Division,
  • Directorate of Plans, CIA, 1962-67
  • On leave from CIA, assigned to Agency for International Development as Director of Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, Saigon (with rank of ambassador), 1968-71
  • Executive Director-Comptroller, 1972-73
  • Deputy Director for Operations, 2 March-24 August 1973 (served concurrently as Executive Secretary, CIA Management Committee)LATER CAREER
  • Private law practice, consultant, and author
  • Died 27 April 1996

Remembered as one of the last great “gentleman spies,” Colby served as CIA director from 1973 to 1976. During Colby's tenure, the agency supported opponents of Chilean President Salvador Allende, a Marxist,  who was killed during a 1973 military coup. While CIA station chief in Vietnam during the 1960s, Colby had directed Operation Phoenix, pooling U.S. intelligence resources to identify and “neutralize” Viet Cong leaders, ultimately resulting in as many as 20,000 deaths.

Colby is perhaps best known for telling Congress about the CIA “family  jewels” — detailed accounts of extensive covert operations that in 1975 prompted Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) to compare the agency to “a rogue elephant on the rampage.” After leaving the CIA, Colby practiced law at Reid & Priest in Washington, D.C., and later at Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine in Los Angeles. He also had a consulting business andspoke on the lecture circuit. In 1994 Colby signed on with Activision, an entertainment and video game publisher, to develop spy thriller video games.

Riebling counts Colby as a suspect because one of his given roles while   working for Helms at the CIA was to protect the agency's image and thus to prevent it from being tarnished by the Nixon administration's troubles. According to Riebling, Woodward first met with Deep Throat within hours of Colby's damage-control assignment, and Colby was also “rumored to use underground parking structures for secret meetings.”

Colby became the subject of a different mystery in April 1996 when he disappeared while canoeing on the Potomac River. He was missing for nine days before his body was found in a tributary. An autopsy revealed that Colby, age 76, had possibly suffered a stroke or heart attack before falling into the water and drowning.

The prospects that William E. Colby was Deep Throat dim considerably in light of Woodward's assertion that he would reveal Deep Throat's identity upon his death. Colby's widow, Sally Shelton-Colby, a top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, characterized the idea of her husband as the secret Watergate source as “preposterous.” “My  husband wasn't Deep Throat,” she said. “Bill just didn't have it in him.”

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