I recently had the opportunity to see Carl Colby’s documentary film THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. The trailer, available through the filmmaker”s website, portrays the storyline faithfully. William Colby’s service to the United States is laid out in sympathetic detail in his biography in Wikipedia. Another useful source is William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster, by John Prados, published first in 2003 and again in 2009, by the University of Kansas Press. Also, the CIA’s official internal history of Colby, a history that CIA historians are charged to complete of every former Director, has just been released by the archives this past October.
Colby’s espionage work started in his days as a paratrooper behind enemy lines in Europe for the Office of Special Services (OSS) in World War II, continued in the CIA after the formation of the agency in 1948, included his involvement in Vietnam and Asia during the Vietnam war, and ended with his retirement from the position of Director of Central Intelligence in January of 1976. In short, his service as an intelligence officer exceeded in length the existence of the CIA! He would have known most everything to be known about the CIA and national security intelligence activities at that point in time.
William Colby was appointed Director of Central Intelligence—in agency shorthand, DCI of the CIA—in September 1973 by President Richard Nixon and, following Nixon’s impeachment, he continued in that capacity in the administration of President Gerald Ford. In this later period, Colby is best remembered for his testimony before Congressional committees charged with investigating the government’s intelligence activities. These hearings were in response to Seymour Hersh‘s reports that the intelligence agencies had been surreptitiously investigating citizens protesting the Vietnam War. The special select committees chosen to carry out the investigations were headed by Senator Frank Church (D) of Idaho, in the Senate, and by Otis Pike (D) of New York, in the House. After the hearings, when Colby was ousted from the CIA directorship, apparently for his willingness to disclose too much, hinting at the so called “family jewels,” he was succeeded in that position in January 1976 by George H. W. Bush, the future 41st President of the United States. Colby died mysteriously on April 27, 1996, by drowning while canoeing near his home in Rock Point, Maryland.
The description of the film given on its website is worth quoting:
A son’s riveting look at a father whose life seemed straight out of a spy thriller, THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER, CIA SPYMASTER WILLIAM COLBY uncovers the secret world of a legendary CIA spymaster. Told by William Colby’s son Carl, the story is at once a probing history of the CIA, a personal memoir of a family living in clandestine shadows, and an inquiry into the hard costs of a nation’s most cloaked actions.
From the beginning of his career as an OSS officer parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe, William Colby rose through the ranks of “The Company,” and soon was involved in covert operations in hot spots around the globe. He swayed elections against the Communists in Italy, oversaw the coup against President Diem in Saigon, and ran the controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which sparked today’s legacy of counter-insurgency. But after decades of obediently taking on the White House’s toughest and dirtiest assignments, and rising to become Director of CIA, Colby defied the President. Braving intense controversy, he opened up to Congress some of the agency’s darkest, most tightly held secrets and extra-legal operations.
Now, his son asks a series of powerful and relevant questions about the father who was a ghost-like presence in the family home – and the intelligence officer who became a major force in American history, paving the way for today’s provocative questions about security and secrecy vs. liberty and morality. The film forges a fascinating mix of rare archival footage, never-before-seen photos, and interviews with the “who’s who” of American intelligence, including former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and Director of CIA James Schlesinger, as well Pulitzer Prize journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and Tim Weiner. Through it all, Carl Colby searches for an authentic portrait of the man who remained masked even to those who loved him most.
Carl admits at the end of the film that he still doesn’t know who his father was, and neither do we. We are honored to have been given an insider’s portrait of a family doing all the important things together as its head works in the shadows on national security matters. We get to examine the competing claims of family and country, religion and duty, morality and national interest. How can such an intertwined family life and work life be joined harmoniously under such circumstances? How can a person and a family escape from the labyrinth of double identity? What is friendship to a spy? Can a spy have true friends? When his son hears his father call someone a friend, he reports that ‘friend’ is a word reserved for a work contact; the use of the word is strategic. In his line of work, it is not possible to have fully trusted friends.
Family pictures are supplemented by interviews with Barbara Heinzen Colby, William’s first wife, Carl’s mother, and the mother of the four other Colby children. She shows herself to be a strong, admirable, ethical, and straightforward person who tells the family story with clarity and empathy for all involved. The Colbys, lead by William and Barbara, are devoted Roman Catholics. Clearly, her concern is to protect the family, maintain ethical behavior, and raise her children. It is a credit to Carl Colby that the story is told straight, without rancor, hurt feelings, requests for understanding, or claims of victimage. As the football coaches like to say, it is what it is, and Colby tells it that way. He pursues the truth of his film, edited concisely, much the way William Colby must have pursued an intelligence objective. There’s a family trait at work here.
The power of the film is in its meaning for the nation, “the hard costs of a nation’s most cloaked actions” that the filmmaker refers to in his summary. Many of the famous figures in the national security ‘establishment,’—all male—appear in the pictures and interviews: Kissinger, Schlesinger, Snowcroft, MacFarlane, Brzezinski, and others. Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney are among them, serving at the time in President Ford’s administration. A palpable feeling comes over the viewer that the nation’s intelligence agencies and covert action programs grew up with Colby and the men we see in the pictures; perhaps they were the inventors. Is this a fraternity we’re hearing from? Can it be that patterns of counter-insurgency developed in the OSS, repeated in Italy, in Guatamala, in Vietnam, in Chile, and in many other places, are to be repeated in enhanced form in all future administrations? By the time of the Nixon and Ford administrations, an internal security culture seems to have developed with the power to unduly influence, perhaps mislead even the president. There seems to be unstated agreement that Congressional oversight, while constitutionally mandated, must not be allowed to subvert national secrecy by the release of discrediting secrets to the public. National security requires secrets, from the public as well as enemies. But should citizens allow covert actions in a democracy in the first place? If so, how can the security agencies be checked by the President, how can the executive branch be checked by the legislative branch, and how can the citizenry check both? Most important, how can citizens take responsibility for the actions that governments secretly take in their name?
With the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Patriot Act, as amended and renewed in subsequent years, the nation has institutionalized the covert operation culture created by Colby and his peers in the OSS and CIA. We’ve become a national security state. Since watching the film, I’ve been laying awake at night counting our nation’s covert operations, much the way others are rumored to count sheep. The list is extensive and the actions frequent. Take a look at the list Wikepedia has compiled to date. Yes, the choice to go to War in Iraq appears to have been influenced by the national security culture. it was preceded not only by the earlier Gulf War but by covert operations in Iran, Iraq, and Nicaragua, during what is now known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Covert activities are seemingly increasing in number right now, are they not? What’s does it mean when a General becomes CIA director and a CIA director becomes Secretary of Defense? And what does it mean that some of these office holders have been Chiefs of Staff to Presidents. Under what constitutional auspices are drones dropping in and shooting at people in countries we are not at war with, and without congressional approval? Where is the drumbeat to bomb or invade Iran coming from? Is it only to my ear that the drumbeat is getting louder?
I hope millions of people get to see this film. If it doesn’t make you a little paranoid, it could make you a lot more thoughtful and realistic. It’s an important film for Americans to see in educating themselves for the responsibilities of citizenship.
Will Callender ©
January 3, 2012
Good to hear from you Will. I’m sorry I missed the film in Portland in December. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and I must say it does leave me thinking as well about where we are heading. I had not remembered the details around his death so took a few minutes to read that. The covert operations make one stop and think. I worry about the drumbeat as well Will. Take care.
This is so much more than a review of the film. You remind us of how little control anyone else had as that “fraternity” shaped and molded America’s covert actions agencies. I’m anxious to see the film, after having read your piece and a related article in a magazine recently. I anticipate that feeling of paranoia when I watch the film, but I agree with you (and George Santayana) that we must keep ourselves educated about these things in order to accept the responsibilities of citizenship.
Thanks for sharing this!
It is difficult to consider what is possible if any citizenry is unable to discern and engage in open dialogue and problem solving aimed at the many immense challenges that are being faced in the world today, especially those concerning social justice and human rights, including torture, as well as a right to privacy and unwarranted surveillance.
Although I started a small poem to address the provocatively succinct review of the film that Will provided, I began to remember, vaguely, the quote below from President Kennedy, which gave me encouragement and hope. Perhaps I’ll post my poem at a later time; until then, here is Kennedy’s quote on secrecy:
“The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.” U. S. President, John F. Kennedy
Thanks so much for the quote from President Kennedy. It is inspiring. I wish other Presidents had spoken on this topic, and that President Obama might address it yet. President Eisenhower’s warning about the ‘military industrial complex’ is certainly pertinent.
As it happens, Carl Colby’s film portrays Henry Cabot Lodge as ‘tricking’ President Kennedy, or at least surprising him. The film suggests that the assassination of President Diem and his brother, which Lodge arranged for, occurred without the full approval of the President. Amazing, if true.
Will, I read your excellent piece on William Colby just now, almost a year late. My parents were friends and colleagues of the Colbys in Saigon (Colby was my dad’s boss), and we kids “hung out” with the Colby kids. My brothers and I grew into adulthood as “CIA brats” with other CIA families, so I’m amused by your wondering “how a spy can have real friends,” and your musings about the conflicts of “living with double identity.” I know in my own family, we never had such conflicts. We had “real friends” among all US government branches at our overseas posts, even if not all of them knew we were CIA. We also had real friends among local populations of these other countries. My parents never felt constricted by “double identity,” and I doubt the Colbys did either. Their “best” friends, of course, were probably other CIA colleagues. You didn’t worry about your own family’s identity overseas, because just about everyone else you ran into, of every nationality, was also involved in some “interesting activities.” Where you sometimes felt out of place was BACK IN THE USA, lol, where other people were caught up in boringly mundane activities that you could no longer relate to. Everyone I know from the overseas days said that same thing about life “back in the USA.”