Spook cinema: The night I met "the man nobody knew"

A son's haunting film biography of William Colby, his elusive spymaster father, comes to Seattle. It stirs many memories.

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A son's haunting film biography of William Colby, his elusive spymaster father, comes to Seattle. It stirs many memories.

A remarkable new documentary, playing through Thursday at the Northwest Film Forum, traces an extraordinary life from a unique vantage point. Carl Colby searches through the tangled trails of history and recollection for the truth about his father, the spymaster William Colby — The Man Nobody Knew. I certainly didn’t know Bill Colby. But I met him and, for an hour or two, followed those historic traces with him, a few months before his death in a canoeing incident that many (including son Carl) suspected was no accident.

A few weeks earlier an irresistible invitation had been faxed to the Seattle Weekly, where I worked, from a D.C. think tank called the Committee for National Security: William E. Colby, ex-director of the CIA and seminal architect of counter-insurgency, would have a layover at Sea-Tac. Would a reporter like to talk to him about why “the US must substantially reduce its military expenditures in the post-Cold War era, despite claims from fellow Republicans” to the contrary?

United Airlines’ empty, lowlit club lounge was a set readymade for covert rendezvous. Colby looked more like George Smiley than Jason Bourne. He was trim and compact, with silvery hair, a disarming, guarded smile, and an owlish mien enhanced by thin-rimmed glasses; he looked like a skinnier Harry Truman. He drank espresso, as befits an old Italy hand. He was amiable and gracious, though doubtless frustrated at my efforts to steer the interview. He wanted to talk about the national present – the need to admit the Cold War was over, cut the defense budget, and invest in things like fighting AIDS (which was then untreatable) and building high-speed rail, which would do more for security than extra missiles and battleships. I couldn't have agreed more, but I wanted to talk about his past — about Vietnam and the scandal-dogged CIA. (See excerpts on right.)

It was some past. Colby’s career ran Zelig-like through the history of the Cold War and America’s Vietnam War. He got into the game in World War II, when he joined the Army, was assigned to its Office of Strategic Services (the OSS was the CIA’s predecessor), and led a Norwegian commando team wreaking sabotage behind German lines. After the war Colby worked briefly as a lawyer and federal bureaucrat, but he missed the action and sense of service he’d known in the war. So he joined the new Central Intelligence Agency. He was a paradigm of the idealistic, adventure-seeking Ivy Leaguers, veterans of the OSS, who helped found the Company — and of the driven, over-achieving, absent fathers of the 1950s who spawned a genre of bittersweet memoirs like this by their aggrieved children. As Carl Colby says in voiceover, “Everything for the mission. A warrior was what my dad was. He loved being in the fight… I’m not sure if he ever loved anyone, and I never heard him say anything heartfelt.”

Colby served behind diplomatic cover in Stockholm, where he organized Scandinavia’s secret Gladio forces — stay-behinds who would battle any future Soviet occupation from within — and Rome, where he dispersed the ample cash and political strategy that forestalled a Communist victory at the polls. The latter was a ringing success with unintended consequences: It helped nourish postwar Italy’s culture of corruption and the resurgence of the Mafia. Likewise, some Gladio units (especially in Italy) morphed into rightwing terrorists.

Then, in 1959, Colby was sent to Saigon, where he soon became CIA head of station. This marks another personal touchpoint: That same year my family returned from Vietnam, where my father worked in an academic mission that the CIA used for cover; he was the assistant given the task of telling the spooks to get out. Carl Colby sums up better than I could the nostalgia and horror of living in an outwardly peaceful Saigon as a child, then watching the war unfold from afar: “The Vietnam that I knew was being destroyed. This perfumed, gorgeous, liquid country was being torn apart."

Colby rose to head the CIA’s Far East Division, then returned to Vietnam to run the joint U.S.-Vietnamese rural “pacification” — i.e. counterinsurgency — campaign. Again, it succeeded (where Gen. William Westmoreland’s enormous blunderbuss military campaign failed dismally), but its Phoenix Program left a notorious legacy of torture and assassination. Colby insisted, sincerely it seems, that these weren’t the plan, but they may have been inevitable. Certainly his counterinsurgency campaign laid the groundwork for the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 1971 Colby was called home to join the CIA’s executive ranks. In 1973, as Watergate turmoil engulfed the White House and the stink of scandal rose around the Company, President Richard Nixon appointed him its director. Colby was seen as a safe choice, someone who could at once reform and protect the embattled agency. But even he was shocked at the extent of skullduggery he uncovered there over the past three decades: assassination plots, domestic spying, LSD mind-control experiments, secret overseas prisons — sound familiar?

He informed the new president, Gerald Ford, who (among others) blurted out some secrets, leading Congress and the press to clamor after more. Others in and around the agency thought Colby should refuse to testify, as his predecessor Richard Helms had. But he believed measuring out information — a careful confession — was the way to head off calls to dismantle the agency, and kept his cool through nearly 50 appearances before an irate congressional committee. “Can't somebody shut the guy up?” snarled a young presidential assistant, Dick Cheney.

“He really did believe in the wisdom of the American people,” Carl Colby recalls. “I wondered if he was not expiating his sins.” To get at that question, and at the enduring mystery of his father’s character, Colby fils deploys a rich trove of not just historical footage but family pictures, letters, and home movies. His name doubtless helped him secure illuminating interviews with the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersch, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Oleg Kanunin, the late David Halberstam and Daniel Schorr, and, with a surprisingly sensible and generous observation, Bill Colby’s old adversary Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney, Kissinger, and George H.W. Bush, who replaced Colby as CIA director, evidently demurred.

But one source has more to say then anyone: the filmmaker’s mother, Barbara Heinzen Colby. She speaks with impressively sharp recollection and scant bitterness. A decade after Bill Colby finished testifying and was bounced out as CIA director, a decade before I met him at Sea-Tac, and despite his lifelong Catholicism, he divorced her and remarried. The family’s travails, including the early death of one troubled, anorexic daughter, seem to echo those of the nation itself in the latter half of the American Century: the heady promise, the outsized adventures and achievements, the disillusion and betrayal.

Carl Colby, clearly less reconciled than his mom, passes over these two decades in a blink: “He wrote a couple books. He raised another family.” In a final gesture of filial payback, the son does not even mention his warrior father’s final crusade for peaceful progress and an end to military excess. That leaves us to wonder if the man nobody knew was still expiating his sins.

If you go: The Man Nobody Knew, nightly at 7 and 9:15 through Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill; tickets, $6 members, $7 seniors, $10 general. Details here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.