Colby devoted life to espionage


May 6, 1996
Web posted at: 10:15 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- William Colby led the Central Intelligence Agency through some of its most turbulent days during the 1970s. He worked behind enemy lines in wartime France and, most recently, with a former Cold War adversary on a computer game.

Colleagues at the Central Intelligence Agency secretly called him "the bookkeeper" for his carefully assumed colorless manner. Colby himself described the perfect secret operative as the traditional gray man -- so inconspicuous that he can never catch the waiter's eye in a restaurant.

Colby had a long history with secret intelligence. He headed the CIA's Saigon station from 1959 to 1962. In 1968, he returned to Vietnam to run the "Pacification Program." The program, run during the late 1960s, included Operation Phoenix, which aimed at rooting out Viet Cong agents. More than 20,000 Viet Cong were killed while Colby was in charge.


Later, he would tell a House panel there might have been some "illegal killing," as he called it. Nearly 20 years after the war ended, Vietnam refused to let him visit.

Back at CIA headquarters in the early 1970s, Colby was in charge of secret intelligence gathering and political operations. "The wiser covert activities, and we've had a lot of them, are long-term in nature. The ones that have not gone so well have been attempts at a quick answer," Colby said some years after he retired.

After President Nixon put him in charge of the CIA in 1973, Colby spent a fair amount of time testifying before congressional committees. Colby insisted the agency did not support or bring about the 1973 coup against Chile's President Salvador Allende, even though the Nixon administration had budgeted millions of dollars to destabilize Allende's left-wing government.

Colby had no problem with congressional oversight. "Sometimes intelligence operations are high-risk, and sometimes they fail. Then, the question is not whether the CIA was some rogue elephant, which it never has been, but rather that we Americans made a mistake through our constitutional system," Colby said.

But some people in the Ford administration had a problem with how often Colby cooperated with Congress. For example, he gave Congress a list of past CIA actions that were unethical, unauthorized, or immoral. They included plans to kill Cuban President Fidel Castro and other international leaders; unauthorized perusal of Americans' mail, and psychedelic drug experiments conducted without the consent of the Americans being tested. In late 1975, President Ford announced that George Bush would replace him.

Last year, after two decades of as an attorney and consultant, Colby and a retired Soviet intelligence officer portrayed themselves for an interactive computer game called "Spycraft."

"I'm a great believer in games -- war games, intelligence games, political games --- because they make you think," Colby said.

Correspondent Mark Leff and Reuters contributed to this report.


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