WASHINGTON -- Someone once polled a group of ex-Central Intelligence Agency officers as to which former chief they would like to have at their side if they were stranded on an island.
If there was an ample supply of good food and drink, Allen Dulles was the overwhelming choice. But if the situation smacked of danger, William E. Colby won the nod.
With his bookkeeper's glasses and bland manner, Mr. Colby, who died last week at the age of 76 in a Southern Maryland boating accident, looked like a colorless bureaucrat. But he was an extremely complex personality.
His revelation of the CIA's unsavory past in the face of criticism by his colleagues probably saved the CIA from destruction.
In World War II, Mr. Colby was a brave and resourceful member of the Office of Strategic Services, America's wartime intelligence agency. He parachuted into German-occupied France and Norway on highly dangerous guerrilla and sabotage missions and was decorated several times.
He was a devout Catholic convert with such a rigorous sense of moral integrity that some colleagues referred to him as a "warrior priest." Yet, in Vietnam he headed the Phoenix program which was designed to root out the Viet Cong infrastructure in the south through a campaign of terror and assassination.
Mr. Colby became Director of Central Intelligence in May 1973 at a critical moment in the CIA's history. In the wake of reports that the agency had assisted the Watergate burglars, James R. Schlesinger, his immediate predecessor, had angrily ordered the compilation of a dossier of everything the CIA had done in its 25-year history that was illegal or violated its charter.
Mr. Colby inherited the report, known as the "Family Jewels," and it gnawed at his conscience. He instituted reforms but leaks to the press disclosed that the CIA had engaged in assassination plots against world leaders, ran a widespread campaign of illegal surveillance of American citizens, including mail intercepts and telephone taps, and had administered mind-control drugs to unsuspecting human guinea pigs.
In the wake of these disclosures, the Senate created a Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Sen. Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat with presidential ambitions. The House formed a similar body chaired by Rep. Otis G. Pike. Over the next year, the nation was treated to the uniquely American spectacle of an intelligence service being grilled in the full glare of the public spotlight.
A long line of witnesses paraded before the panels and the public was fascinated with tales of CIA ties to Mafia hoods, assassination plots and other misdeeds.
In reality, the assault upon the intelligence community was an attack upon U.S. foreign policy by those opposed to American intervention in Vietnam, Latin America and other areas. The CIA was merely a convenient scapegoat.
One day, Senator Church mused out loud whether the CIA had become "a rogue elephant."
This catchy phrase created the image of an organization running amok, a threat to the nation's fundamental liberties. It absolved those who were really at fault -- presidents, Congress and other officials who had approved of, or ignored, CIA abuses.
Fearing that the agency was threatened with emasculation or destruction, Mr. Colby took a bold gamble. Rather than drawing the cloak of secrecy around the CIA, he was candid and cooperative with the investigators. He balanced the needs of national security against Congress' right to know.
President Ford, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and some of Mr. Colby's predecessors were convinced that he had gone too far in lifting the veil. "Who would have thought that it would someday be judged a crime to carry out the orders of the President of the United States?" mused Richard Helms, a former head of central intelligence.
In the end, a backlash developed against the exposure of the nation's secrets. Mr. Colby's reforms plus the ravaging of America's economy by OPEC and the rising threat of international terrorism raised questions about the wisdom of dismantling the nation's intelligence apparatus.
It was too late to help Mr. Colby, however. He was ousted by President Ford on the eve of the 1976 presidential campaign.
"I believed in the Constitution," Mr. Colby wrote later. "I believed in Congress' constitutional right to investigate the intelligence community; and I believed that, as head of the community, I was required by the Constitution to cooperate with Congress. I also believed that any other approach wouldn't work."
Nathan Miller is the author of "Spying for America: The Hidden History of U.S. Intelligence," which is to be issued in paperback this year.
Pub Date: 5/09/96