William Colby and the War on Terror


William Egan Colby, 10th Director of Central I...
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William Colby, according to the new film by his son Carl Colby, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, was the quintessential intelligence agent. He was daring and courageous behind enemy lines with the OSS during World War Two in Europe . He fought the good fight, and won, against the Italian communists in Italy during the 1950s, when it could easily have gone the other way. He fought the less good fight in Vietnam and lost. He ascended to the position of director of central intelligence (DCI) – head of the CIA – in 1973. He was a dedicated public servant and a hard man who lived without illusions. He was a mystery to others and to his son, who “never heard him say a heartfelt thing,” and who the younger Colby isn’t sure ever loved anyone. He was a patriot in the best sense of the word, and in the nature of his craft, few know of his service and even fewer appreciate it.

When Colby assumed the CIA directorship, he learned of the “Family Jewels,” the record of illegal CIA activities that spanned its history. Someone will need to write a thesis in national and organizational psychology to explore the wealth of subterranean meaning buried in the application of that name to those acts. Can we believe that Colby had no inkling of these activities over the course a career that tracked the history of the organization? Perhaps not. Still the record is clear that soon after he became DCI, he began the process of making this history known to the public, including the history of assassinations.

According to Carl Colby and others, Colby, who was vilified by anti-war activists during the Vietnam War as a Nazi, was also the only political liberal to serve as DCI in its history. He believed, in exposing the Family Jewels and cooperating with Congress – the Church committee and others – that he was fulfilling Constitutional obligations and submitting to the rule of law in a democracy. But Colby was also a committed servant of the CIA who believed in its mission and the need for secrecy and tough action in intelligence and national security work: he sought to walk that fine line between the demands of congress and of  the left that he reveal everything and the desire of most others in the CIA and Ford administration that he reveal as little as possible. He sought to save the CIA, not destroy it, but he believed that saving it required reforming it.

One of the themes of Carl Colby’s film, expressed explicitly by Jesuits who knew the devout Catholic William, and others who worked with him, is the tension between the secret, deceptive nature of intelligence work and the higher values that work is intended to serve in a democracy, among them truth and honesty. The danger is always one of losing sight of the ends one serves in practical commitment to the means that may questionably serve them.

Prominent members of the Ford administration national security team – including James Schlesinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Donald Rumsfeld (and which also included Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger) – speak sympathetically of the crucible Colby endured during his brief two and a half years as DCI. He spent that tenure perpetually in congressional hearings – as many as three a month – attempting to save the CIA and also to meet those Constitutional obligations. He pleased no one. Congress and the left believed he revealed too little – still concealed too much – and he became the public face in its concluding chapter, of the Cold War CIA.

On the other side, the members of the Ford administration, as it turned out – despite their expressed personal sympathies – and including Ford, thought Colby disloyal to them. They believe that, contrary to their own wishes, Colby revealed too much and damaged the CIA. Carl Colby even elsewhere quotes former Secretary of State James Baker, III – the American political battles of the Cold War wending their way into the twenty-first century – blaming 9/11 on William Colby.

I trace this back directly to the Senate and House Hearings in the 1970s, when CIA director William Colby was forced to reveal the CIA’s ‘Family Jewels,’ and the CIA’s capacity to engage in covert action was destroyed.

Colby’s sympathetic critics argue – attempting, by personalizing it, to diminish the principle Colby upheld in the course he followed– that the DCI was trying to expiate guilt over the nature of his own career. Schlesinger even claimed off camera, according to Carl Colby at a post-screening Q&A, that William Colby had been “captured by the left.”

It is crucial to understand the argument that Baker and the Ford administration team – a couple of whom, we see, served prominently in the George W. Bush administration – are making, contra Colby. The “forced” in Baker’s criticism is a semantic question, indeed. Were Colby’s revelations not voluntary? The congress has no enforcement arm. When one submits to the requirements of law, of the Constitution – requirements even Baker acknowledges by using the word “forced” – does that constitute submission to force or is it voluntary fulfillment of one’s obligations as a citizen and a public servant? Regardless of what Baker and the rest think, they know what Colby did was in accordance with the law and the prerogatives of Congress – and they believe, even today, that he should not have done it. They believe he should have defied – stonewalled, firmly finessed – the Congress’s exercise of its Constitutional role and ratified the secret, illegal nature of the Family Jewels – the three decade record of CIA assassination and illegality – by keeping them secret and protecting them from submission to legal review.

These people opposed the ultimate rule of law then, still endorse what they believed then now, and some of them reenacted these beliefs in the contemporary War on Terror. The revelations of Bush administration torture policies and deadly practices were made more diffusely, by no single individual, but we know the same people, and their inheritors, took the United States one major step farther toward forgetting the higher values that intelligence secrecy and deception should always serve in submission. And a very great irony is that it is Barack Obama, the liberal political opponents cast as a terrorist-sympathizing socialist, who is in fact so moderate in temperament and so establishment in his alignments, who has fulfilled the desires of Gerald Ford and his team in pursuing no accounting and working to make it all go away.


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