Ten years ago, two hours after the Twin Towers fell in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, I was watching CNN, and Wolf Blitzer was interviewing former Secretary of State James Baker, III. Wolf asked him, "How did this happen?" and Baker responded, "I trace this back directly to the Senate and House Hearings in the 1970s, when CIA director William Colby was forced to reveal the CIA's 'Family Jewels,' and the CIA's capacity to engage in covert action was destroyed." I was stunned. My father had been dead for more than five years, and here he was, still part of the debate. A few weeks later, I saw photographs of CIA paramilitary operatives in beards and turbans riding camels and horses alongside the tribesmen of the Northern Alliance in the wilds of Afghanistan, doing battle against the Taliban. I thought, "This reminds me of my father as an OSS Jedburgh fighting the Nazis in occupied France and Norway in World War II." I turned off the TV and thought, "Hmm, maybe I have a story to tell. Who was my father, and what is his legacy?"
And now, 10 years later, I have told that story in my feature documentary film, "The Man Nobody Knew." It was not an easy story to tell; my father was not exactly "gushing" or "forthcoming." He was a man who "kept his counsel," as the old Westerns would say. He never talked about himself, even though he had accomplished more than most: a scholarship to Princeton at age 16, Phi Beta Kappa, Law Review at Columbia Law School, parachuting behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France and Norway in the bitter winter of 1944-1945 to organize the Resistance, blowing up Nazi troop trains. I remember one of my friends telling me, when I was 24 years old, to just forget it, I would never measure up to my father. And that was just the start; he ran the most successful -- and costly -- covert political action campaign in American history, against the Communist Party in Italy, and the CIA won. He then went to Vietnam and oversaw the start of a counterinsurgency against the Viet Cong, and, later, the Pacification Program and the controversial Phoenix Program in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which resulted in the killing of more than 29,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. He then returned to the U.S. and became the director of the CIA, and in numerous hearings before Congress, he revealed the CIA's fabled "Family Jewels," the history of the CIA's wrongdoing from the 1940s to the 1970s. Some say he destroyed the Agency; others say he was the "reformer" and that his actions "saved" the CIA. Whatever the case may be, he was fired by President Ford and forced to resign, taking many of his secrets to his grave.
My father was never one to "toot his own horn." He preferred to listen; he would say to me, "I already know what I think; my job is to listen to the other person and to find out what they can tell me." If you think a spy is some dashing figure, you have it half-right; they are dashing, in what they do, but not in how they act. My father and his fellow clandestine officers working at "the pickle factory," as they called the CIA, worked hard at appearing to be ordinary: they drove nondescript, dull sedans; they wore off-the-shelf suits; they almost all wore eyeglasses (spectacles), horn-rimmed or with opaque lenses, like my dad's, and like mine. My dad was very proud of the fact that he would be the last person to be acknowledged by the maître d' at a busy restaurant and the last man you would remember talking to at a reception. However, he would remember you; he had an elephant's memory for detail. Once, he stopped me at a street corner and pointed across the street, asking, "What do you see?" I said, "Like what? I don't see anything, really." He said, "Look again," and then I started to see details, describing people who walked by, gradually noticing anything out of the ordinary. And my father said, "Good, now you are beginning to really see." So my father was not the easiest man to make a film about -- until I started to look for what's "underneath." I saw that he had an extraordinary capacity for pain; he could absorb the most devastating news and seem unmoved. He would say, "Well, we need to do better," or, "Next time, we'll get it right," or, "You win and you lose." His silence and his inability or unwillingness to show emotion was unnerving to me; I began to think that maybe I would end up like him: cold, withdrawn, circumspect, with an obvious talent for taking and inflicting punishment.
I learned from making this film that my father was a soldier, and that he was loyal to a fault, to the president, to the United States, to the Constitution, to his God and, ultimately, to himself. The fact that he was not the most perfect "dad" to me is something I always just understood. I knew that he had a mission, a job to do, and I was just happy to be along for the ride. Please see this film and let me know what you think: of my father, William Colby, of what he did and what the CIA continues to do, and of what we ask of our own CIA secret warriors today, our own men and women, who we send out to do our "dirty work," just like my dad.
Carl Colby is the producer and director of "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby," a First Run Features release.