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William E. Colby

In office
September 4, 1973 – January 30, 1976
President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded by James R. Schlesinger
Succeeded by George H. W. Bush

Born January 4, 1920(1920-01-04)
St. Paul, Minnesota
Died April 27, 1996 (aged 76)
Rock Point, Maryland
Spouse(s) Barbara Heinzen (1945–div. 1984)
Sally Shelton-Colby (1984–death 1996)
Children 5 children w/ Heinzen
Alma mater Princeton University
Columbia Law School
Religion Roman Catholic

William Egan Colby (January 4, 1920 – April 27, 1996) spent a career in intelligence for the United States, culminating in holding the post of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from September 1973, to January 1976.

During World War II Colby served with the Office of Strategic Services. After the war he joined the newly created CIA. Before and during the Vietnam War, Colby served as Chief of Station in Saigon, Chief of CIA's Far East Division, and head of the Civil Operations and Rural Development effort; he oversaw the Phoenix Program. After Vietnam, Colby became Director of Central Intelligence and during his tenure, under intense pressure from Congress and the media, adopted a policy of relative openness about U.S. intelligence activities to the Senate Church Committee and House Pike Committee. Colby served as DCI under President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford and was replaced by future President George H. W. Bush on January 30, 1976.


Early life and family

William Egan Colby was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1920. His father, Elbridge Colby, was a professor of English, author, and Army officer who served in Army and in university positions in Tientsin, China; Georgia; Vermont; and Washington, D.C. His grandfather, Charles Colby, had been a professor of chemistry at Columbia University but had died prematurely. His mother, Margaret Egan, was from a family in St. Paul active in Democratic politics. William Colby attended public high school in Burlington, Vermont and then Princeton University, graduating in 1940 and entering Columbia Law School the following year.

Colby was for most of his life a staunch Roman Catholic.[1] He was often referred to as "the warrior-priest." He married Barbara Heinzen in 1945 and they had five children. In 1984 he divorced her and married Democratic diplomat Sally Shelton-Colby.


Office of Strategic Services

Following his first year at Columbia, in 1941 Colby volunteered for active duty with the Army and served with the Office of Strategic Services as a Jedburgh or special operator trained to work with resistance forces in occupied Europe to harass German and Axis forces. During World War II, he parachuted behind enemy lines twice and earned the Silver Star as well as commendations from Norway, France, and Great Britain. In his first mission he deployed to France as a Jedburgh commanding Team BRUCE, in mid-August 1944, and operated with the Maquis until he joined up with Allied forces later that fall. In April 1945, he led the NORSO Group into Norway on a sabotage mission designed to tie down German forces in Norway from reinforcing the final defense of Germany. After the war, Colby graduated from Columbia Law School and then briefly practiced law in William Joseph Donovan's New York firm. Bored by the practice of law and inspired by his liberal beliefs, he moved to Washington to work for the National Labor Relations Board.

Central Intelligence Agency

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby discusses the situation in Vietnam with Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller and Deputy Assistant For National Security Affairs Brent Scowcroft during a break in a meeting of the National Security Council., 04/24/1975
William Colby, Director of Central Intelligence, briefs President Ford and his senior advisors on the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, April 28, 1975. (clockwise, left to right) Colby; Robert S. Ingersoll, Deputy Secretary of State; Henry Kissinger; President Ford;James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary; William Clements, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Vice President Rockefeller; and General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
William Colby, outgoing Director of Central Intelligence, with President Ford and incoming DCI George Bush, 1975.

Shortly thereafter, an OSS friend offered him a job at the CIA, and Colby accepted. Colby spent the next twelve years in the field, first in Stockholm, Sweden. There, he helped set up the stay-behind networks of Gladio, a covert paramilitary organization organized by the CIA to make any Soviet occupation more difficult, as he later described in his memoirs.[2]

Colby then spent much of the 1950s based in Rome, where he led the Agency's covert political operations campaign to support anti-Communist parties in their electoral contests against left wing, Soviet Union-associated parties. The Christian Democrat and allied parties won several key elections in the 1950s, preventing a takeover by the Communist Party. Colby was a vocal advocate within the CIA and the U.S. Government for engaging the non-Communist left wing parties in order to create broader non-Communist coalitions capable of governing fractious Italy; this position first brought him into conflict with James Angleton.


In 1959, Colby became the CIA's Deputy Chief and then Chief of Station in Saigon, Vietnam, where he served until 1962. While in Vietnam, Colby focused intensively on building up Vietnamese capabilities to combat the Viet Cong insurgency in the countryside. In 1962 he returned to Washington to become the Deputy and then Chief of CIA's Far East Division. During these years he was deeply involved in Washington's policies in East Asia, particularly with respect to Vietnam, as well as Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and China. He was deeply critical of the decision to abandon support for Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, and believed this played a material part in the weakening of the South Vietnamese position in the years following. In 1968, despite preparing to take up the post of Chief of Station Moscow, President Johnson sent Colby back to Vietnam as Deputy to Robert Komer, who had been charged with streamlining the civilian side of the American efforts against the Communists. Shortly after arriving Colby succeeded Komer as head of the U.S./South Vietnamese rural pacification effort. This was an attempt to quell the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. Part of the effort was the controversial Phoenix Program, an initiative designed to identify and attack the "Viet Cong Infrastructure". There is considerable debate about the merits of the program, which involved assassination and torture, though Colby consistently insisted that such tactics were not permitted in the program as a matter of policy. More broadly, along with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and MACV Commander General Creighton Abrams, Colby was part of a leadership group that worked to apply a new approach to the war designed to focus more on pacification and securing the countryside as opposed to the "search and destroy" approach that had characterized General Westmoreland's tenure as COMUSMACV. Some, including Colby later in life, argue that this approach succeeded in quelling the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, but that South Vietnam, abandoned by the United States after the 1973 peace accords, was ultimately overwhelmed by a conventional North Vietnamese assault.

CIA Director

Colby returned to Washington in 1971 and became Executive Director of CIA. After long-time DCI Richard Helms was dismissed by President Nixon in 1973, James Schlesinger assumed the helm at the Agency. A strong believer in reform of the CIA and the Intelligence Community more broadly, Schlesinger had written a 1971 Bureau of the Budget report outlining his views on the subject. Colby, who had had a somewhat unorthodox career in the CIA focused on political action and counterinsurgency, agreed with Schlesinger's reformist approach. Schlesinger appointed him head of the clandestine branch in early 1973. When Nixon reshuffled his agency heads and made Schlesinger Secretary of Defense, Colby emerged as a natural candidate for DCI--apparently based on the recommendation that he was a professional who would not make waves.

Colby's tenure as DCI, which lasted two and a half tumultuous years, was overshadowed by the Church and Pike congressional investigations into alleged U.S. intelligence malfeasance over the preceding twenty-five years, including 1975, the so-called "Year of Intelligence." Colby cooperated, not out of a desire for a major overhaul, but in the belief that the actual scope of such misdeeds — encapsulated in the so-called "Family Jewels" — was not great enough to justify lasting damage to the CIA's reputation. Colby also believed that the CIA had a moral and legal obligation to cooperate with the Congress and demonstrate that the CIA was accountable to the Constitution. On a more practical level, he also believed that cooperating with Congress was the only way to save the Agency from dissolution during a period of great congressional strength. This openness policy caused a major rift within the CIA ranks, with many old-line officers such as former DCI Richard Helms believing that the CIA should have resisted congressional intrusion.

Colby's time as DCI was also eventful on the world stage. Shortly after he assumed leadership, the Yom Kippur War broke out, an event that surprised not only the American intelligence agencies but also the Israelis. This intelligence surprise reportedly affected Colby's credibility with the Nixon Administration. Colby participated in the National Security Council meetings that responded to apparent Soviet intentions to intervene in the War by raising the alert level of U.S. forces to DEFCON 3 and defusing the crisis. In 1975, after many years of involvement, South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in April 1975, a particularly difficult blow for Colby, who had dedicated so much of his life and career to the American effort there. Events in the arms control field, Angola, the Middle East, and elsewhere also demanded attention.

Colby also focused on internal reforms within the CIA and the Intelligence Community. He attempted to modernize what he believed to be some out-of-date structures and practices by disbanding the Board of National Estimates and replacing it with the National Intelligence Council.[3]

President Ford, advised by Henry Kissinger and others concerned by Colby's controversial openness to Congress and distance from the White House, replaced Colby late in 1975 with George H. W. Bush during the so called "Halloween Massacre" in which Secretary of Defense Schlesinger was also replaced (by Donald Rumsfeld). Colby was offered the position of U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO but turned it down.

Post-CIA career

In later life, Colby in 1977 founded a D.C. law firm--Colby, Miller & Hanes, with Marshall Miller, David Hanes, and associated lawyers--and also worked on public policy issues. In consonance with his long-held liberal views, Colby became a supporter of the nuclear freeze and of reductions in military spending. He practiced law and advised various bodies on intelligence matters. He also wrote two books, one of memoirs entitled Honorable Men, the other on Vietnam, called Lost Victory. In the latter, Colby argued that the U.S.-RVN counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam had succeeded by the early 1970s and that South Vietnam could have survived had the U.S. continued to provide support after the Paris Accords. Though the topic remains open and controversial, some recent scholarship, including by Lewis "Bob" Sorley, supports Colby's arguments. Colby also lent his expertise and knowledge, along with Oleg Kalugin, to the Activision game Spycraft: The Great Game, which was released shortly before his death. Both Colby and Kalugin played themselves in the game.


On Saturday, April 27, 1996, Colby died in an apparent boating accident near his home in Rock Point, Maryland. His body was found, underwater on Monday, May 6, 1996. The subsequent inquest found that he died from drowning or hypothermia after collapsing from a heart attack or stroke and falling out of his canoe. State Senator John DeCamp, a long-time associate of Colby, has adamently stated[4] his opinion that Colby was murdered in connection with efforts to expose those involved in a prostitution ring cover-up. (see: Franklin child prostitution ring allegations) Colby assisted DeCamp in the the investigation that alleged government officials were serviced by those prostitutes. Colby's death followed his appearance in a documentary film interview about the cover-up. More allegations came to light when the documentary surfaced on the Internet.[5]


  • "The CIA owns everyone of any significance in the major media."[6]
  • "We disbanded our intelligence [after both world wars] and then found we needed it. Let's not go through that again. Redirect it, reduce the amount of money spent, but let's not destroy it. Because you don't know 10 years out what you're going to face."[7]


  1. ^ "Obituary: William Colby". The Daily Telegraph. 1996-05-07. Retrieved 2007-09-07.   Archived on personal website.
  2. ^ Colby, William; Peter Forbath (1978) (extract concerning Gladio stay-behind operations in Scandinavia). Honourable Men: My Life in the CIA. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 009134820X. OCLC 16424505.  
  3. ^ For further information on Colby's leadership of the Intelligence Community, see
  4. ^ KPFA Radio Interview of John DeCamp December 23,2009
  5. ^ Conspiracy of Silence Documentary with Colby interview on the child prostitution ring allegations and cover-up, film produced by Yorkshire Television.
  6. ^ McGowan, David (in English). Derailing Democracy: The America the Media Don't Want You to See. Common Courage Press. p. 13. ISBN 1567511848.  
  7. ^ "A Spymaster Assessment". Newsweek CXVIII (23): 56. 1991-12-02.  

Additional sources

  • Colby, William; Peter Forbath (1978). Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA. New York: Simon & Shuster. ISBN 0671228757.  
  • Colby, William; James McCargar (1989). Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of Americas Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books. ISBN 0809245094. OCLC 20014837.  
  • Prados, John (2003). Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195128478. OCLC 49493468.  
  • "William Colby: Retrospect". Central Intelligence Agency. 2007-05-08. Retrieved 2007-09-07.   Evaluation of his tenure by CIA historian/official.
  • Sorley, Lewis (1999). A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. Harcourt. ISBN 0151002665.  
  • Garthoff, Douglas (2005). Directors of Central Intelligence as Leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community, 1946-2005. Central Intelligence Agency. ISBN 1929667140.  

External links

Government offices
Preceded by
James R. Schlesinger
Director of Central Intelligence
September 4, 1973 - January 30, 1976
Succeeded by
George H. W. Bush

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