William Colby: Obituary

The last of the great spymasters, William Colby contrived in his later years to appear as a normal person rather than a shadowy figure burdened down with the nation's secrets.

Shortly after his retirement as CIA director in 1976 I literally bumped into him coming out of the Century Club in New York. He was donning his raincoat and a hat, but underneath this espionage garb was a pleasant and gracious man. His autobiography, Honorable Men, had just been published and he was briefly a celebrity and, perhaps, more open to someone he had never met stopping him in the street and asking to talk about Soviet missiles. That is what he did. I'm not saying he told me any secrets; he didn't. I just wanted to note that he could be approachable in a way his more furtive colleagues such as James Angleton never were. It seemed that he was trying to be more open.

Colby began his 30-year espionage career during the Second World War as a member of Major-General J. "Wild Bill" Donovan's Office of Strategic Services. He was dropped behind enemy lines in German- occupied France and Norway, where he blew up railroads, joined resistance networks and led groups of underground fighters. Recently, at a spies' reunion, Colby recalled the first time he parachuted into France in 1944. "We established contact with London and started gathering resisters. We taught them how to mine railroad tracks and destroy bridges. We tried to get a Panzer division to fight us instead of going on to Normandy. We held them up for three weeks. You can't get a Panzer division to stay very long with three men and a bunch of kids."

When President Harry Truman disbanded Donovan's "Wild Boys" immediately after the war the Central Intelligence Agency quickly replaced it as the permanent espionage service to counter the KGB.

Colby rose swiftly through the ranks and was most active during the Vietnam war, when he became Saigon station chief and then chief of the agency's Far East division. He steered the infamous intelligence operations that now belong to another distant era - the strategic hamlet programme, the coup against Diems, the CIA's world-wide anti-Communist cultural, labour, student and media covert missions. He was at the centre of the secret war in Laos and the disastrous Vietnam Pacification Programme and the so-called Cords (Civil Operations and Rural Development Supports), including Operation Phoenix, which was intended to destroy rural support for the Communist guerrillas and led to sweeping arrests, torture and the execution of suspects.

He was director of the CIA from 1973 to 1976, a time when the agency came under intense scrutiny over its dirty tricks from the media and Congress. Its more outrageous operations were brought somewhat to heel. After Vietnam, Colby was in charge when the spy agency helped overthrow President Allende in Chile, and, of course, he was head of the CIA under President Nixon during Watergate. He was fired by President Ford and returned to a law practice in Washington DC.

In Honorable Men he strove to put a corporate face on "the company", analysing the so-called "three cultures" of a Cold War spy operation - the James Bonds, the political and paramilitary activists, and the analysts who read books and papers.

It was the war in Vietnam that filled the central part of Colby's CIA career. He was sent to Saigon first in 1959, and was CIA director when Saigon fell in 1975. In his memoir of Vietnam, entitled Lost Victory (1989), Colby joined a long list of other officials such as Robert McNamara, who tried to retrace their steps and salvage something from the wreckage of American policy in South East Asia. "If only they had taken my advice" is the standard lament in these works, and Colby was no exception. Most of these accounts contain little new pertinent information.

Colby's line was that victory was within grasp after the pacification programme (the one he directed), but was thrown away by wrong-headed policies - mainly inadequate levels of military aid.

His book was viewed by the harshest critics as more a compilation of government press releases than a serious attempt to analyse the American adventure in Vietnam. In one passage, Colby asserted that "on the ground in South Vietnam, the war had been won" by 1972 - mainly as a result of the pacification programme. Colby was an unrepentant professional; no remorse for him.

He could not bring himself to admit the extent of the failure that has been so well documented, nor the implications of the corruption rife in the Saigon government. His military over-view also left out the key factor. While the South Vietnam forces had withstood a big offensive from the North they had lost bases and taken such high casualties that some divisions had not recovered by the time the end came in 1975.

Colby was also taken to task for his view of the evacuation of Saigon and the fate of the CIA station's employees who were left behind. Colby treated too lightly for his critics the charges that many who should have been helped were abandoned and that sensitive documents incriminating them were also left behind. In a 1977 book, Decent Interval, a former CIA officer, Frank Snepp, claimed that 70 Vietnam translators and their families were left in one CIA compound. Colby admitted only that "many who should have been helped to depart were not, but many others were".

In the end, Colby tried hard to accept CIA reforms but found it as difficult as any of Donovan's "Wild Boys" to be reined in and expected to play by new rules - especially to account for agency actions before Congress.

In one of his last appearances, a year ago, among old campaigners, Colby was still cheering on the boys in their under-cover, modern espionage fight against terrorism, organised crime, drugs and the secret development of nuclear weap-ons. Good intelligence, he said, can replace "ignorance, fear and suspicion with knowledge and confidence". In other words, so far as he was concerned "the company" was still in business and there was much work to be done.

William Egan Colby, lawyer and government official: born St Paul, Minnesota 4 January 1920; Attache, American Embassy, Stockholm 1951-53, Rome 1953- 58, First Secretary, Saigon 1959-62; Head, Far East Division, Central Intelligence Agency 1963-67; Ambassador, Director of Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, Saigon 1968-71; Executive Director, CIA 1972-73, Director 1973-76; married 1945 Barbara Heinzen (three sons, one daughter), 1984 Sally Shelton; died Cobb Island, Maryland c27 April 1996.

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