Talking With the Son of 'The Man Nobody Knew'

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First Run Films

You're fairly critical of the Phoenix program, a counter-insurgency effort that he used in Vietnam.

We show the nasty edge. But it's the same thing that Generals David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster are doing in Afghanistan and Anbar Province.

The film shows your dad pioneering that in Vietnam in 1967.

He believed in going into a horrific situation and carving out a piece of turf that can be controlled. Robert McFarlane, the former National Security Advisor, says in the movie, "It was the kind of simple yet novel ideas that your father put into place and it came down to making life better in a given village so that you engendered trust and ultimately gained intelligence from a much more welcoming community. At the same time, when you found somebody that the villagers identified as a bad guy, kill him—quick."

One of the most memorable characters in your film is Sen. Frank Church, who chaired the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—the so-called Church Committee—in 1975. He alleged all sorts of misdeeds by CIA, and called your father to the witness stand. Tell us about Frank Church.

Frank Church was an ambitious Senator from Idaho. He was sanctimonious, wrapped himself in the banner of the law, and was basically running for president. Remember, the Vietnam War was winding down. It cost us so much in blood and treasure—and politicians such as Church hadn't had a say in the great decisions about it. When the war started crumbling, politicians like him were caught up with a vengeance. Plus, they all felt the CIA had been lying to them for decades. William Colby became the whipping boy.

What were those days like for your family?

Well, I graduated from Georgetown in 1972, so I kind of lived in-and-out of the house. I saw my father every other day. He'd come home from those hearings and try to relax.

"Relax"? After being grilled by a throng of hostile Congressmen and Senators practically once a week?

Well, he seemed to be very accepting. My dad believed in the ultimate reasonableness of the American people, and he regarded this as a big firestorm set off by flares inside the Beltway.

Former Congressman Ron Dellums from California is shown as one of your dad's main antagonists in the U.S. House. Dellums wasn't your average liberal Democrat critic of national security. He was a leftist activist who proudly celebrated the Black Panthers. How did William Colby take to being questioned by the likes of him?

He would say, "That was kind of hot today. I don't know how much was accomplished, but we're making progress." I once said to him, "You're kidding. You've testified dozens of times this year. Why would you go back for more punishment?" Dad thought the American people could absorb the revelations he was making in context. I told him that to people such as Dellums, his testimonies were like kerosene on the fire. Eventually, the fire became consuming. He couldn't regulate the oxygen in the room anymore.

It seems to have reached the point in those hearings where your dad simply couldn't defend himself.

That's right. The attacks became almost personal. And he was weak. He didn't have the support of Gerald Ford, who by then was president. In researching this part of the film, I interviewed former CIA director Robert Gates. He told me about the contrast between my dad's testimony and when he was summoned before Congress in the Eighties during the Iran-Contra scandal. Gates said that my dad had no support at the White House whereas when Gates was deputy director of CIA he had a strong president, Ronald Reagan, covering his back.

The prevailing wisdom is that the Congressional hearings on the CIA revealed the Agency to be corrupt.

Well, the proof positive that the CIA isn't full of avarice is that in my father's last will and testament his list of assets was modest. I was given a check for $600. That was basically my one-fourth share of his assets at the time. He also left me a first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book by T.E. Lawrence. Dad purchased it on the Strand in London, and he could practically recite it from memory. He also left a little pewter minuteman statue to my son—his grandson.

But the hearings portrayed the CIA as guilty of great wrongdoing, and general incompetence in its missions.

Well, remember that during the time of those hearings we'd basically lost Vietnam. There were thousands of Cuban soldiers in Angola. Latin America was crumbling from Soviet involvement. Third World countries were embracing communist insurgency as this sort of national liberation movement. There were even Americans who called the Vietcong a national liberation movement. The world was in flames and frankly my father may have been an unwise choice as director of CIA. He was a professional intelligence officer and, as Don Rumsfeld says in the movie, probably didn't have the social and political skills necessary to navigate through Congress.

New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner is interviewed in your film. In 2007, he wrote a book, Legacy of Ashes, the basic theme of which is that the CIA has been a waste. He asserts that it's never been successful. How do you deal with those criticisms?

I argued with Tim before and after interviewing him. I said that the CIA was successful in Italy, and I also mentioned Indonesia. Tim said that Indonesia is a hotbed of Muslim radicalism. I said, "Muslim radicalism? It's the largest Muslim country in the world—and they're making Nikes!" Indonesia is one of the CIA's success stories, and so are countless other places.

When you completed Georgetown University, did you have aspirations to follow in your father's footsteps?

My father basically headed all of his children in the opposite direction. Strange as it seems, the CIA does have quite a bit of generational history, but it's mainly on the analyst side of the game. To be in operations, you must be a blank slate. If I'm Carl Colby arriving in Budapest or Angola, well, that may not be the best name to traffic under. Plus, there's a dedication and discipline that wasn't particularly my strong suit at the time.

Within your family, was your dad's work discussed?

We loved international affairs, and debated everything at the kitchen table. But from early on, the CIA was viewed as a kind of priesthood.

What would William Colby think of the way the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden?

Probably that it was like bombing Adolf Hitler's bunker and actually killing him.

Do you think your dad would be surprised that we've been at war for more than a decade?

He saw these conflicts as long and protracted. It's like the Wild West where Kit Carson has an alliance with a Pawnee and the Pawnee has somewhat of an alliance with the Apaches—but we're actually after the Comanche bad guy. We're allying with one tribe against the other.

What would have been your dad's response to 9/11?

He would have wanted to get into Afghanistan and infiltrate the Taliban much earlier than we did. It didn't take John Walker Lindh and Anwar al-Awlaki, who are Americans, very long to fly over to Pakistan, grow a beard, get a turban, begin spouting anti-American slogans, and infiltrate themselves into the inner councils of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. My dad would say, Don't you think we could send a few people over there to do that same thing, but this time they'd be working for our side? Detroit and parts of California are full of Arab-Americans.

You interviewed a who's who of Washington for this film. Did being William Colby's son give you special access?

It got me in the door with my dad's friends. Others, such as William Webster, Donald Rumsfeld, Seymour Hersh—they've seen me around. But being Colby's son with them is just a curiosity.

How did you persuade Rumseld to participate?

To start with, I read his book. My dad went to Princeton, and so did Rumseld. So I had that going, too. Then I wrote him a long email explaining that I wanted to know if his experience as Secretary of Defense during Vietnam with 500,000 troops over there colored what he did in Iraq when he was again Secretary of Defense. That premise was interesting to him.

Bob Woodward was also one of your interviewees. What's it like turning the tables on him?

Bob almost interviewed me. He said, "This is very interesting, Carl. You're going to find out things about your father, perhaps, that you never knew." I told Bob some personal anecdotal things about my dad, but then he would spin it back to me. So in a sense, it's a dialogue.

Your dad abruptly divorced your mom when he was 63. In the movie, when your mom is recounting those days, she says she told your dad, "We're Catholics. We don't believe in divorce." What's her view of him now?

Her identity is still wrapped up in him. One time she said to me, "I should have probably married that guy from Columbus, Ohio, instead. We'd be living in Columbus. He'd be devoted to me. We'd go to the dances and play golf. We'd have a family and my husband would love and adore me." I told her, "But then you wouldn't have had Saigon, or Rome." Understand that living in exotic places didn't really matter to her. But she did want to be allied with a man who had a mission.

So what kind of father was William Colby?

He wasn't the Great Santini. He never challenged me to a basketball game so he could show me he was better than I was. In fact, dad didn't play team sports. He played individual sports. Or, frankly, just physical fitness, and that was for his benefit. He always looked directly at me, but I suspect he was thinking about Angola or something else. It's like my mom, siblings, and I were there as convenient window dressing. I loved him, but I always wondered whether he really loved us back.

In the film, you say there was never a word of affection from him.

Dad had his own kind of code. He was Kit Carson and we lived on the prairie in northeastern New Mexico territories. He'd go on a mission with his Indian scouts to find a Comanche warrior. I was at home with my mother, and here comes the Pawnee raid.

So living in the Colby house was always like being near the battle.

Well, dad was very good at making war. He understood it. He wanted guns to be going off. He wanted to be in an environment where there was a threat and it could be met. That's an unusual mindset, but you can find it among special command Marines. I even found it among the Los Angeles Police Department.

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Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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