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Homage to an Enigmatic Father


Colby: Son honors late CIA director.(Courtesy of Carl Colby)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the date of the film’s premiere. It will begin screening in D.C. on Oct. 28.

Just hours after the Twin Towers fell on that fateful day in 2001, Carl Colby recalls listening to Wolf Blitzer interview former Secretary of State James Baker III on CNN.


Baker said he traced the catastrophe directly back to congressional hearings in the 1970s, when then-CIA Director—and Colby’s late father—William Colby revealed the “family jewels,” allegedly destroying the CIA’s capacity to prevent such a plot.

It was that day that the younger Colby decided to create a tribute to his father’s legacy. Ten years later, Colby is set to release that tribute in documentary form: The Man Nobody Knew premieres at Washington, D.C.'s E Street Cinema on Oct. 28.

The film gives viewers a glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of one of the CIA’s most mysterious figures. During World War II, William Colby twice parachuted behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France and Norway, earning the Silver Star. Shortly after the war, he accepted a job with the CIA, and he spent the next 12 years working on anti-Communist operations in Sweden and Rome.


Colby became the CIA’s deputy chief and then chief of station in Saigon, Vietnam, where he served until 1962, during which time he oversaw the start of a counterinsurgency against the Vietcong. Later, he served as deputy and then chief of the CIA’s Far East Division, and went back to Vietnam several times during the ’60s and ’70s. He returned to Washington in 1971 to become CIA director.

During his tenure, committees led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y., conducted investigations into CIA operations from the 1950s until the mid-1970s in response to reports of CIA involvement in the Watergate scandal. It was then that William Colby began to doubt his faith in his organization and the presidential authority that directed it, his son said.

In 1973, Colby revealed the so-called family jewels—a set of reports that detailed certain illegal activities conducted by the CIA over the preceding 25 years—because he believed that the CIA had a moral and legal obligation to cooperate with Congress. President Ford forced Colby to resign shortly after the revelation.

Carl Colby said that his father changed fundamentally during this time.


“There came a point where they asked him to stonewall Congress—basically to lie—and he just couldn’t do it,” he said. “He wanted [the people] to understand, he wanted to air the dirty laundry … and he suffered the consequences.”

His family life unraveled shortly afterward. William Colby divorced his wife, Barbara, in 1984, and all but disappeared from the lives of his five children.

“I think most children would like their parents to stay together,” Carl Colby said, “but in this case, it was like a broken covenant. We had sacrificed for him, we had supported him, we had defended him … what happens when he lies to us? It calls everything into question.”

But despite the hurt and uncertainty that came with having a top CIA agent for a father, the younger Colby wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I was lucky enough to be introduced to a really harsh world,” he said, describing how, as an 11-year-old, he saw a soldier shot in front of his eyes. “I was lucky in that I was being introduced to the world as it really was, and not some illusion.”

In 1996, William Colby died in an apparent boating accident near his home in Rock Point, Md., most likely from drowning after collapsing from a heart attack. He was missing for more than a week before his body was found underwater on May 6.

Carl Colby never got to ask his father the question that has nagged him his entire life: “What was more important: the job or us?” 

This article appears in the October 13, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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