William Colby

William Colby

William E. Colby, the son of an army officer, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on 4th January, 1920. He attended Princeton University graduated in 1940.

In 1941 Colby joined the United States 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 on one occupation helped to destroy a German communication centre in Norway.

After the war Colby obtained a law degree from Columbia University in 1947. After working for a short time in a law firm, Colby joined the CIA. He served in Stockholm (1951-1953) and then in Rome (1953-1958), where he helped to arrange the defeat of the Communist Party in the Italian general election.

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 during the Vietnam War. It is estimated that as many 60,000 supporters of the National Liberation Front were killed during the Phoenix program. However, Colby put the number at 20,587. 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.

During the Watergate Scandal President Richard Nixon became concerned about the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. Three of those involved in the burglary, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez and James W. McCord had close links with the CIA. Nixon and his aides attempted to force the CIA director, Richard Helms, and his deputy, Vernon Walters, to pay hush-money to Hunt, who was attempting to blackmail the government. Although it seemed Walters was willing to do this, Helms refused. In February, 1973, Nixon sacked Helms. His deputy, Thomas H. Karamessines, resigned in protest.

James Schlesinger now became the new director of the CIA. Schlesinger was heard to say: “The clandestine service was Helms’s Praetorian Guard. It had too much influence in the Agency and was too powerful within the government. I am going to cut it down to size.” This he did and over the next three months over 7 per cent of CIA officers lost their jobs.

On 9th May, 1973, Schlesinger issued a directive to all CIA employees: “I have ordered all senior operating officials of this Agency to report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or might have gone on in the past, which might be considered to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency. I hereby direct every person presently employed by CIA to report to me on any such activities of which he has knowledge. I invite all ex-employees to do the same. Anyone who has such information should call my secretary and say that he wishes to talk to me about “activities outside the CIA’s charter”.

There were several employees who had been trying to complain about the illegal CIA activities for some time. As Cord Meyer pointed out, this directive “was a hunting license for the resentful subordinate to dig back into the records of the past in order to come up with evidence that might destroy the career of a superior whom he long hated.”

William Colby
William Colby

It has been argued by John Simkin that it was this Schlesinger directive that encouraged senior CIA operatives to leak information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about Nixon's attempt to cover-up the Watergate Scandal. On 16th May, 1973, Deep Throat has an important meeting with Woodward where he provides information that was to destroy Nixon. This includes the comment that the Senate Watergate Committee should consider interviewing Alexander P. Butterfield. Soon afterwards told a staff member of the committee (undoubtedly his friend, Scott Armstrong) that Butterfield should be asked to testify before Sam Ervin.

On 25th June, 1973, John Dean testified that at a meeting with Richard Nixon on 15th April, the president had remarked that he had probably been foolish to have discussed his attempts to get clemency for E. Howard Hunt with Charles Colson. Dean concluded from this that Nixon's office might be bugged. On Friday, 13th July, Butterfield appeared before the committee and was asked about if he knew whether Nixon was recording meetings he was having in the White House. Butterfield now admitted details of the tape system which monitored Nixon's conversations.

The appointment of Schlesinger as Director of the CIA created a great deal of unrest in the agency and after three months Nixon decided to replace him with Colby. When in 1975 both houses of Congress set up inquiries into the activities of the intelligence community, Colby handed over to the Senate committee chaired by 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 military dictatorship.

His testimony resulted in his predecessor, Richard Helms, being indicted for perjury. Colby was attacked by right-wing figures such as Barry Goldwater for supplying this information to the Frank Church and on 30 January 1976, President Gerald Ford replaced him with George H. W. Bush.

In retirement Colby published his memoirs Honorable Men. This resulted in him being accused of making unauthorized disclosures, and was forced to pay a $10,000 fine in an out-of-court settlement.

On 28th April 1996 William Colby went on a canoe trip at Rock Point, Maryland. His body was found several days later. Later police claimed that there was no evidence of foul play.

Primary Sources

(1) Cord Meyer, Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA (1983)

By refusing to participate in the Watergate cover-up, Helms preserved the institutional integrity of the CIA, but he also ensured the end of his career as director. Nixon waited until after his overwhelming election victory to deliver the coup de grace. Then, on November 20, he summoned Helms to Camp David. There were some serious budgetary issues to be resolved and, thinking these would be the subject of the meeting, Helms prepared himself to discuss these fiscal problems. Although, after the election, Nixon had asked his top officials to submit their resignations in order to start his new term with a clean slate, Helms had not offered his own resignation in the belief that the CIA directorship, in accordance with past tradition and precedent, should be kept separate from the election results and not become a political plum. He was therefore surprised when Nixon demanded his resignation at Camp David but subsequently accepted Nixon's offer of an ambassadorship, and chose Iran as a country where his past association with the Agency would not be likely to cause problems.

A few days later, James Schlesinger, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, was called to Camp David and was offered the job of CIA director by Nixon.... In firing Helms so abruptly, Nixon was taking a chance that he might choose to retire from public life and use his newfound freedom to reveal the White House role in attempting to obstruct the FBI investigation of the Watergate affair and to bribe the participants. However, Nixon probably figured that Helms was too much the loyal public servant to damage the American presidency and its relation to the intelligence community by revealing this information....

In my dealings with Schlesinger, I quickly came to respect his capacity for sustained hard work and to realize that he was widely read and extremely intelligent. I never had any reason to complain in my own case of the personal rudeness that many others had cause to resent. However, I did quickly discover that he carried with him into his new job a firm conviction that the clandestine service which I temporarily headed exercised too dominant a role within the Agency, was out of phase with the intelligence requirements of the modern age, and was heavily overstaffed with aging veterans of past cold wars. Just where he had obtained these views I am not clear to this day, but Colby explains in his memoirs that he shared Schlesinger's convictions on this point and Colby's early briefings obviously must have had an influence. The resentment within the White House domestic staff against Helms and his close friends and associates may have also played some role. Whatever the reason, Schlesinger did not hide his distrust and dissatisfaction with the clandestine service, and reports reached me on a daily basis of derogatory remarks he had made - I'm sure some exaggerated in the telling and others purely apocryphal. For example, I received two separate accounts of a social occasion at which Schlesinger was reported to have stated, "The clandestine service was Helms's Praetorian Guard. It had too much influence in the Agency and was too powerful within the government. I am going to cut it down to size." Whether true or not, these stories were widely believed, and they did not make my job any easier in trying simultaneously to win the confidence of the new director and to sustain the morale of the people down the line...

Schlesinger was determined to track down and identify every possible piece of evidence that might bear on the Watergate affair. Only by being completely forthcoming with the congressional committees on Watergate could the Agency hope to put to rest the suspicions that it was deeply implicated, and any new discovery of unrevealed involvement would only confirm the general belief that we must somehow have been party to the cover-up. For this reason, Schlesinger issued a directive to all CIA employees on May 9, 1973, in which he stressed his determination to "do everything in my power to confine CIA activities to those which fall within a strict interpretation of its legislative charter."

It required a retrospective confession of any perceived guilt by all current and past Agency employees going back to the inception of the CIA in 1947. It was not limited to activities directly or indirectly connected with the Watergate affair. Since the legislative charter of the Agency laid down in the language of the National Security Act of 1947 had been deliberately made general and ambiguous, the directive invited the penitential employee to come forward with his own definition of what might be construed as outside that vague charter. We were required to sit in judgment on all past activities as to which one of them might conceivably have been illegal, improper, or unjustified under the broad language of the 1947 Act. It was a hunting license for the resentful subordinate to dig back into the records of the past in order to come up with evidence that might destroy the career of a superior whom he had long hated. It was an invitation to the self-righteous and the moralistically inclined to resurrect "old unhappy, far-off things, And battles long ago" in an effort to prove in the perspective of the present that they had been right in the dimly remembered past. There are very few human institutions in this world, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Boy Scouts, that could survive in good working order so broad an injunction to confess all past improprieties or mistakes in judgment, least of all an intelligence agency whose job it is to operate outside the law in foreign countries.

In his interview with me in October 1978, Schlesinger admitted that he had made a serious mistake in issuing a directive so sweeping in scope and so open-ended in time, and in retrospect he wished he had not done so. Schlesinger asserted that he had been primarily concerned with identifying any hidden involvement in Watergate and that he should have restricted his order to that subject. However, he explained that Colby had drafted the directive for his signature and that he had signed it as drafted without giving sufficient thought to its far-reaching implications. In fairness to both Schlesinger and Colby, it should be added that neither of them foresaw that the results of this confessional enterprise would eventually leak to the press; they believed instead that the findings could be used within the Agency to reform past practices and improve existing regulations. They were also motivated by an understandable desire to be fully informed on anything that might rise from the past in the course of the congressional investigations and to be in a position to assure the Congress that remedial action had already been taken.

In the event, the compilation of all possible past misdeeds that flowed from Schlesinger's directive was accomplished with less internal damage than might have been the case in a less disciplined organization. Colby was designated by Schlesinger to oversee the preparation of a report based on all available records and the testimony of those who came forward to confess. Employing the staff of the CIA inspector general, Colby pursued the project with penitential zeal and by May 21, 1973, had collected 693 pages describing all past instances in which the Agency's legislative charter might conceivably have been violated." Individual officers racked their memories for any activity they could recall that might be questionable, and dutifully submitted their reports. The process was certainly thorough, but the results were necessarily skewed by a number of factors. With the passage of time, memories had dulled, crucial witnesses had died or could not be found, and the written record was not always complete. The chain of approval up the line to the policymakers was sometimes deliberately obscure in order to protect the President. Most significant, activity undertaken at the height of the cold war and in a period of direct confrontation with the Soviets had a different aspect in the milder climate of detente. A retrospective severity of judgment tended to color the findings.

For example, Colby's early determination that the opening by the Agency of mail between American citizens and correspondents in the Soviet Union in the period between 1953 and 1973 was clearly illegal was later called into question by the Department of Justice. In his book, Colby makes the point that "opening first-class mail was a direct violation of a criminal statute; I looked it up in the law library to make sure." On the basis of this superficial finding, the mail opening program was cited by Colby as a particularly egregious example of an illegal violation of the Agency's legislative charter. When the story of the Agency's past misdeeds finally broke in the press in December 1974, this mail opening operation figured as a prime example of how the Agency had illegally violated the rights of American citizens, and with scare headlines across the country the American people were made to feel that the CIA had functioned as a domestic Gestapo in operating beyond the law.

(2) William Colby, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (1978)

A footnote to this incident is the fact that John Dean obviously did recognize the photographs and their significance long before the Ellsberg trial. For early - in 1973, somewhat nervously, he asked that all of CIA's memos (obviously including the photographs) be returned to the CIA from the FBI, leaving a card in the FBI's file that this had been done. I recommended that we agree to no such thing since I saw no legitimate rationale for doing so, although I had no suspicion what might be behind Dean's request at the time. We reacted the same way as we reacted when Dean approached Walters shortly after the Watergate arrests with the idea that the CIA provide bail for the arrested Watergate burglars. Walters turned that one down flatly, pointing out that this would he impossible, since the Agency had no funds available for such an activity and if it made some available for any such action it would have to report the fact to Congressional committees. The strategy was to ensure that CIA avoid getting involved in Watergate or any other improper activity, but to do this without taking, a hostile position toward the White House, explaining why we could not do something and not probing into whatever it might be doing - just staying out.

But this cautious, "distancing " strategy proved to he a double-edged sword, cutting, the Agency in two ways. On the one hand, the CIA was perceived as withholding evidence as long as it possibly could - then revealing it (grudgingly and only what had been specifically asked for and not a whit more. This clearly generated further distrust and suspicion, and reinforced the hostile questions being asked about the Agency's good faith and its use-or abuse of its institutionalized secrecy. On the other hand, each disclosure wrung or leaked from the reluctant Agency during this period caused a greater sensation than it would have done if the information had been volunteered. Moreover, each such disclosure fed the belief that more sinister material was still being withheld, and the White House launched rumors that CIA was the real culprit in the whole affair gained much currency. The over-all result in the long run was to tarnish the CIA's reputation even further.

In the short run, to be sure, Helms's strategy did have the effect of preventing the CIA's tangential connection with the plumbers in 1971 from being blown into sensational proportions by the media before they could be presented in their true context. And more to the point, it also prevented the Agency from becoming involved in the Watergate cover up, of being used by the Nixon White House to escape punishment for its crimes. Indeed, in this respect it worked so well that the Washington Post, surely among the most aggressively investigative of all the media on Watergate, noted in an editorial that the CIA "was the only agency in town that said 'No.' "

Dick Helms paid the price for that "No." In early December 1972, he was invited to Camp David for a meeting with

the President. The belief at Langley was that he was being called to discuss the CIA budget, which at the time was under some debate with the Office of Management and Budget. So I arranged a careful briefing on the arguments on our side before he went. But it turned out to be a waste of time. What happened at Camp David had nothing to do with the budget. It had to do with Helms's careful distancing of the Agency from Watergate, his refusal to allow it to be used in the cover-up. And for that Nixon fired him as DCI, sent him packing to Iran as ambassador and named James Schlesinger as the Agency's new chief.

(3) William Colby, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (1978)

James Schlesinger came on strong. Although his was to he the shortest tenure of any DCI in the Agency's history barely four months - he was to have an exceptionally profound impact on it. He came to the job from the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission. But before that, as noted, while deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1971, on the direct orders of President Nixon, he had conducted a comprehensive review not only of the Agency but of the entire intelligence community. So he was no neophyte when he was sworn in as CIA chief in February 1973. Indeed, quite to the contrary; he knew a great deal about it. More to the point, he had developed some strong ideas about what was wrong with it and some positive ideas as to how to go about righting those wrongs. So he arrived at Langley running, his shirt tails flying, determined, with that bulldog, abrasive temperament of his, to implement those ideas and set off a wave of change both in the practice of intelligence generally and in the organization and operation of the CIA specifically. And in my view, he succeeded admirably.

Central to Schlesinger's ideas was his thinking about the DCI's role in the over-all intelligence process. Bluntly put, he believed that he should be unequivocally the head of it, and that "it" included all American intelligence agencies, not just the CIA...

But it was on my trip to Bangkok in early May of 1973 that I read in a newspaper the story that would radically shake up my life, and that of CIA. It was the story that reported that, during Daniel Ellsberg's trial for disclosing the Pentagon Papers, it had been revealed that the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis J. Fielding, had been broken into by Howard Hunt, using CIA equipment, in search of material that would then be turned over to CIA and from which CIA would prepare a"psychiatric profile" on Ellsberg for the White House. This was a shocker and I couldn't understand how I had never heard of it before, when I was supposed to have been in charge of assembling all the CIA material relevant to Watergate. But more disturbingly, I wondered how the news had hit Schlesinger; for I had assured him that I had told him the full story of CIA's relationship to Watergate on virtually the first day he had arrived at Langley.

I didn't have to wait long after my return home to find Schlesinger's reaction. In a most moving vote of confidence in me, Schlesinger said he assumed that the news was as much of a surprise to me as it was to him. But then he went on to say that we would tear the place apart and "fire everyone if necessary," but we had to find out whether there were any other such questionable or illegal activities hidden in the secret recesses of the clandestine past that we didn't know about and that might explode at any time under our feet. To do this, Schlesinger said, he wanted to issue a directive to all CIA past and present employees, ordering them to come forward with any matter they knew of where the Agency had engaged in an activity outside its proper charter. With that directive, which he issued on May 9, the CIA "family jewels" were born, and led inexorably to a year of Congressional investigations and a whole new status for American intelligence.

(4) Mark Riebling, Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 (2002)

Just such a deflection of suspicion away from CIA was accomplished by Deep Throat, a source who began feeding leads to Post reporter Woodward, by the reporter's own account, on June 19 - only hours after Helms launched CIA's damage-control plan. Woodward's later description of Deep Throat as having "an aggregate of information flowing in and out of many stations" would seem a pointed signal to someone in Langley. Woodward also said that Deep Throat had an "extremely sensitive" position in the Executive Branch, which would perfectly fit someone at CIA, who (according to Woodward) did not like getting calls at the office. The use of an underground parking garage for clandestine meetings would seem to evidence a certain skill at "tradecraft." Furthermore, with the exception of Helms and his DDCI, CIA officers were not political appointees, and therefore their careers, unlike those of Dean and most other possible Throats, would not have automatically fallen with Nixon's own. Woodward himself would later all but confirm that Deep Throat was a spook. "As you know, I'm not going to discuss the identity of Deep Throat or any other of my confidential sources who are still alive. But let me just say that [the] suggestion that we were being used by the intelligence community was of concern to us at the time and afterward."

Could Deep Throat have perhaps been Colby? Much of the information Colby provided to the FBI in the days after the burglary was immediately leaked to the press, as Colby later admitted, though he blamed those leaks on the Bureau. Colby was a political liberal, and no great fan of the Nixon White House; as Helms' damage-control officer on Watergate, he would be perfectly positioned to leak; he was later rumored to use underground parking structures for secret meetings of a personal nature. 'Moreover, the final pages of Colby's i978 book, Honorable Men, would contain a suggestive reference to Throat. Discussing how "the public must be informed of what intelligence is doing in its name," Colby cites "unofficial leaks" as one means of so informing the citizenry; sometimes material is made available to the media though "its source in the intelligence community is obscured from the people who use it." Colby then immediately raises the subject of Deep Throat, and although one might expect him to resent the role of Throat as a competitor in controlling public perceptions of Watergate, he actually characterizes Throat as a force for national good: "Deep Throat remains a secret," Colby says, "but the public has benefited from his information."

Woodward's clues suggest, however, that Throat was more likely another CIA officer present at the June 19 damage-control meeting. This was Cord Meyer. Woodward describes Throat as a chain-smoker and heavy drinker, which Meyer was and Colby was not. Throat was an intellectual who "knew too much literature too well," and Meyer was an awardwinning literary talent. Throat's appearance bespoke "too many battles," and Meyer had a glass eye from the Battle of Iwo Jima. Meyer also reportedly bore a special grudge against Nixon because of his complicity in the McCarthyist drama which had once almost cost Meyer his CIA job; he was even said to have made digs at CIA secretaries who wore Nixon campaign buttons on their blouses. Meyer was practically a charter member of the Old Boys Network of Yale graduates who had gone on to work in intelligence, and Woodward, too, was a member of this club. In fact, Meyer may well have become acquainted with Woodward during the latter's 1969-70 tenure as a Washington briefer in naval intelligence: as part of his daily rounds, Woodward sometimes addressed top people in CIA's Department of Plans, where Meyer was then the number-two man. Moreover, Throat knew all about Hunt's activities-his first tips and most of his early leads concerned Hunt-and Meyer was one of the few at CIA . who knew, even before the Watergate burglary, that Hunt was working for the White House. On March 27, 1972, for instance, when CIA's domestic contact office in Miami queried Langley about Hunt's frequent contacts with Cuban exiles, Meyer cabled back that Hunt was in Miami on White House work and that Miami Station should "cool it," i.e., not concern itself with Hunt. Meyer, it should also be noted, possessed great family wealth his father controlled a lot of real estate in Manhattan-which would explain why Throat could afford not to come forward for big bucks (the advance for his book even now, two decades later, would be colossal). But perhaps most important, Meyer had extremely intimate connections with Ben Bradlee, Woodward's boss at the Post. Indeed, they were in-laws, having both married sisters from the socially prominent Pinchot family. Meyer's interface with Bradlee could have had a close professional aspect as well, since Meyer's main duty at CIA was to penetrate and influence leftist but anticommunist organs of opinion. Among other things, Meyer's close relationship to the editor of the Post might have accounted for the special access that allowed Throat to get to Woodward's morning copy of the Post and scribble on it times for secret meetings.