ON THE NIGHT William E. Colby paddled off into the murky waters of Maryland's Wicomico River,never to be seen alive again, Kenneth B. Osborn was welcoming customers at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baltimore.
An odd pairing: "Bart" Osborn, a gregarious restaurant maitre d' with prematurely white hair and a happily acquired mid-life paunch; and Mr. Colby, the quiet, enigmatic former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. They would seem to have little in common. But the spy business makes strange bedfellows, ones which the CIA has often had to regret -- and none so more than the one it made of Osborn.
In 1967, Osborn went to Vietnam, assigned to an Army intelligence unit that worked closely with the CIA on a program called "Phoenix."
Phoenix was one of those things that went lethally wrong in Vietnam. Loudly touted by the U.S. mission when it was launched as a police program to find, arrest and legally prosecute the civilian members of the Vietcong's shadow underground, it soon gave rise to rumors of a chaotic system of frontier justice, with mistaken arrests, arbitrary executions, bloody interrogations, and torture which included dropping suspects from helicopters.
Colby, the head of the "pacification" program in Vietnam, was in charge of Phoenix. When word got around about wholesale murder in the program, he sent out a memo to its operatives that the CIA didn't approve of assassinations. Nothing changed.
Meanwhile, Osborn, a former Eagle Scout, came home and after a stint at Ft. Meade in 1968-69 quietly mustered out. Colby came home in 1971 and was promoted.
Saigon-based reporters had long heard the rumors about Phoenix, but nobody had come forward to document them. Nor was Osborn eager to spill the beans, he recently recalled in a telephone conversation from his home in Glyndon, in Baltimore County: In 1970 he had enrolled at American University's School of International Service and was still considering a career in the CIA, the State Department or a multinational corporation, despite his misgivings about the war.
One day, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, however, Osborn picked up a young hitchhiker in Georgetown who asked him about his service in Vietnam. It was like loosening the lid on a boiling teapot.
"I told him how the Phoenix interrogators put dowels in the ears of people, how they dropped people from helicopters," Osborn recalled evenly. "It was the heart of the war, it personified what the war was about -- the indiscriminate killing of people."
Osborn's tale soon made its way to anti-war veterans who were gathering evidence of "war crimes" in Vietnam. Not long after, a congressional committee called. It made Osborn its star witness, under oath. He would eventually call Phoenix "a computerized genocide program." The headlines were very big.
Then it was Colby's turn. He took his place at the witness table, with a way of tilting his head at the television lights, that made his glasses look like a pair of communion wafers.
He admitted the Phoenix program was responsible for 20,587 deaths, some of which included "illegal killing." That was "unfortunate," he admitted to panel members who expressed disgust -- mistakes, not an "assassination program." And he quickly reminded them that the communists had invented terror in Vietnam. (Years later, the communists would express respect for the Phoenix program, which they said killed many of their operatives.)
Colby went on to serve as Director of Central Intelligence from 1973 to 1975, which required him to spend much of his time on Capitol Hill explaining away the CIA's role in assassination plots and domestic spying. At the same time, he was running a secret CIA war in Angola the true dimensions of which were buried for years.
By this time, Osborn had deserted whatever government or corporate career he had once envisioned. Instead, he dropped out of college and got fatefully involved with CounterSpy, a magazine established to expose the operations and personnel of the CIA. To support himself, he began to tend bar.
Bad timing. In 1975, the CIA station chief in Athens was gunned down, giving the CIA immense leverage to attack its critics, especially CounterSpy, which it blamed for its agent's death (even though he'd been exposed previously elsewhere). The campaign clicked -- probably because most Americans already thought attacks on the CIA had gone goo far.
CounterSpy soon collapsed, a victim of dried-up funding and internal feuds. The country wanted to forget about Vietnam. Osborn, who had become comfortable in the media spotlight, was now just another Washington bartender with a war story. He developed a drinking problem and fell into debt. On the night Ronald Reagan was sworn in, he got on a bus to Florida.