The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby
Telling the story of a CIA spy - and a father
Hard as it is to bring off a documentary about an elusive man, it’s that much harder when elusiveness was what the man did for a living - and he was your father.
“He was tougher, smarter, smoother, and could be crueler than anybody I ever knew,’’ Carl Colby says of the subject of his new documentary, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.’’ “I’m not sure he ever loved anyone and I never heard him say anything heartfelt.’’ Espionage will do that to a man. Of course so can natural disposition.
William Colby had the look of a prep-school headmaster and the resume of a master of the universe. A Princeton graduate, he won a Silver Star for his service behind enemy lines during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was the forerunner of the CIA. After getting a law degree from Columbia, Colby joined the agency. He served in Stockholm and Rome before becoming chief of station in Saigon. He headed the agency’s Far East Division from 1962 to 1967, then came the two jobs that would make him notorious as well as famous.
Colby ran the CIA’s Phoenix Program from 1968 until 1971. Phoenix was an effective, and bloody, counter-insurgency effort that led to the deaths of some 40,000 Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers. An assassination program critics called it.
The other job was CIA director. Colby returned to Langley in 1971. After holding two senior positions he took over the agency in September 1973. He held the post until January 1976. Those 27 months would prove the most tumultuous in agency history. It was Colby who, in extensive testimony before Congress, confirmed the existence of “the family jewels’’: CIA assassination plots, domestic spying, and other illegal or highly dubious activities (all of which preceded Colby’s directorship).
“I am trying to articulate the way in which we Americans can gather together to control this,’’ he testified, “to supervise this intelligence business, but not destroy it.’’
Colby’s candor may well have saved the CIA. Implausible though it may sound today, when the national security apparatus is given license to torture and murder in defense of the “homeland,’’ post-Watergate public opinion took a highly skeptical view of the security establishment.
There’s no question that that candor ended Colby’s CIA career. The most memorable image in “The Man Nobody Knew’’ is news footage of Colby getting into his two-door sedan and driving off after the swearing-in ceremony of his successor, George H. W. Bush. George Smiley could hardly have looked less glamorous.
Colby spent the rest of his life as a Washington lawyer. Good spymaster that he was, he remained as opaque in death as in life. His 1996 death by drowning was ruled accidental. His son believes Colby killed himself, though he doesn’t belabor the point.
Carl Colby has assembled some very high-powered talking heads: journalists (Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, the late Daniel Schorr), former national security advisers (Brent Scowcroft, Zbiegniew Brzezinski, Robert McFarlane), former Cabinet members (Donald Rumsfeld, James Schlesinger). It’s both touching and disconcerting to hear them frequently preface their remarks with “your dad’’ or “your father.’’ We also hear from family friends and associates. The most frequently heard voice belongs to Colby’s first wife. Barbara Heinzen Colby, the director’s mother, seems undimmed by the years, but her many observations and anecdotes do little to bring her former husband closer.
The family snapshots are more revealing. The sight of Colby wearing a tie at family picnics really says something about the sort of man he was. But they’re not that much more revealing. Presumably, Colby would be pleased to know he comes across as neither compelling nor vivid - which in some ways makes him all the more interesting.
The obvious comparison for “The Man Nobody Knew’’ is Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary, “My Architect,’’ about his own famous father, Louis Kahn. Colby’s film covers much more ground and is more expertly done than Kahn’s. But it lacks the sense of neediness and intimacy that gives “My Architect’’ such an emotional charge. Given his subject, maybe there was no other possible outcome for Carl Colby. “My dad used to say,’’ he recalls, “‘I already know what I think. My job is to listen. It’s not about me, it’s about who someone else is and what they might be able to offer me.’’
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.