Seventeen years after his death, former Director of Central Intelligence William E. Colby remains a controversial figure among many persons in and around the intelligence community. Did he betray generations of fellow officers by going public with a so-called “family jewels” list of CIA misdeeds over the years? Or did the disclosure save the agency from dissolution by an angry Congress?
Disappointingly, despite the sprawling length of “Shadow Warrior,” Randall B. Woods, a professor at the University of Arkansas, does not attempt to answer that basic question. At hand is a book that relies heavily upon secondary sources and offers very little fresh information about Colby. Further, Mr. Woods drops some conspiratorial hints that should raise eyebrows among those familiar with the intelligence world. (For instance, he has rogue CIA contract officer Edwin Wilson forging documents to smear a prime minister of Australia in the 1970s, something that escaped the attention of the myriad investigators and writers who explored his villainous career.)
Drawing on Colby’s own memoirs and a book written with his cooperation, “Shadow Warrior” recounts a career that began with dangerous behind-the-lines missions for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Most dramatically, Colby risked his life time and again during a sabotage operation against German rail lines in the frozen far reaches of Norway.
Colby spent much of his CIA career in covert political operations, rather than in the espionage that is the traditional mission of an intelligence agency. Notably, he directed efforts to prevent Soviet-financed candidates from winning crucial postwar elections in Italy. (Mr. Woods also writes that “rumor had it” that Colby and Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce, the glamorous blond wife of Time-Life tycoon Henry Luce, found one another personally congenial enough to conduct an affair.)
Before his appointment as DCI, Colby’s major responsibility was directing pacification programs in Vietnam. Here lies a flaw that makes “Shadow Warrior” a hard slog for the reader. The several hundred pages describe, in numbing detail, Colby’s futile attempts to persuade the South Vietnamese government to win the support of its own population, and his ongoing frustration with both local officials and the U.S. military, which seemed bent on waging conventional warfare. The government’s failure to build a viable society meant that the massive American military deployment was for naught.
When the Nixon White House tapped Colby to be DCI in 1973, he inherited a CIA that was in deep trouble. Several former contract officers were among the Watergate burglars, and Congress and the media pursued issues ranging from CIA participation in domestic spying and experimentation with mind-altering drugs to a plot to overthrow President Salvador Allende in Chile, and numerous other matters. There was also a nasty flap concerning Colby’s firing of counterintelligence chief James J. Angleton.
Colby directed that agency officers give him details of any activities that could be considered “questionable.” To the horror of many officers, especially in the clandestine service, Colby shared the results with the White House and key members of Congress. Promises of secrecy notwithstanding, much of the material was promptly leaked and made a noisy splash in the media.
Most surprisingly, Colby gave the Justice Department material that suggested his predecessor as DCI, Richard Helms, had misled Congress in a public hearing concerning the CIA’s role in the Allende affair. Helms’ defense was that he could not speak freely on a classified operation in a public forum. He pleaded no contest to charges of misleading Congress and was fined.
News of Helms’ plea came during a luncheon of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Several of Helms’ friends passed around a wastebasket that was soon filled with checks and $20 bills, more than enough to pay the fine and much of his legal expenses — a strong indication of how rank-and-file officers felt about Colby’s “betrayal.” Hard feelings between Helms and Colby lasted until their deaths. I attended several events over the years where both men were present. They did not exchange even a glance, much less a smile or handshake.
Colby thought that full disclosure of the CIA’s alleged misconduct would quell the public storm and blunt threats by some leading congressmen to abolish the CIA altogether. He was seriously wrong. Committees chaired by Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike thrashed the agency for months to come. Self-righteous staff members resembled nothing more than the dregs of a Berkeley dormitory. One woman who worked for Pike came to the office of Edward Proctor, the CIA deputy director for intelligence, barefoot and wearing jeans cut off at the cuff. Colby angrily called the committee staff a “ragtag” collection of “immature and publicity-seeking children.”
President Gerald Ford considered firing Colby over his fingering of Helms to the Justice Department but feared he would be accused of attempting a “cover-up.” Not until seven months later, in October 1975, did the White House force his resignation.
Six years later, Colby, then 62, stunned wife Barbara and their five children by announcing that he was leaving after 38 years of marriage to wed the 37-year-old former U.S. ambassador to Grenada, Sally Shelton. Smart and attractive, Ms. Shelton had joined the staff of a consulting firm run by Colby, and they quickly struck up a romance. According to Mr. Woods, Colby told a friend “that he knew two weeks after the marriage [to Barbara] that he had made a dreadful mistake.”
Colby proved his bravery time and again during his guerrilla years, and the covert operation he ran in Italy in the 1950s kept that nation from slipping into communism. But was he suited for overall head of America’s intelligence community? Despite Mr. Woods‘ effort, that question remains unanswered.
Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.