12/24/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2012

Bill Colby: An Honorable Man

I watched the recent documentary film about William Colby, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, with more than casual interest, even before it stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy because of its suggestion that he killed himself in 1996 because of guilt over his failure to comfort his oldest daughter before she died in 1973 from epilepsy and anorexia.

The film, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, was made by his son Carl, who narrated it. The film touched off a huge family fight, not only because Colby's second wife criticized it but because three of Carl's siblings were equally critical.

Sally Shelton-Colby told the Washington Post last month that her stepson portrayed his father "in the way he did to sell his film," while Paul Colby said the pain and sadness of losing his father "has now been intensified by my brother Carl's inexplicable and unfounded attempt to debase the reputation and memory of a modest and decent man, a dedicated father, and an exemplary public servant."

Their criticism was sparked by the film's portrayal of Colby's role in running the CIA's notorious Phoenix Program, in which thousands of suspected Viet Cong agents in South Vietnam were killed in what some members of Congress denounced as an assassination program. Colby revealed the details of the Phoenix Program and other CIA misdeeds, including eavesdropping on war protestors, in testimony before Congress, which made him a pariah to CIA officers.

The film includes extensive interviews with Colby's first wife, Barbara (but not his second) and graphic archival footage of bloody violence in Vietnam. I found it engrossing, partly because of the sheer drama of Colby's life, but also because I had a passing acquaintance with him.

I first met him in 1974, shortly after President Ford named him CIA director, when I interviewed him at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for his -- and my -- hometown newspaper in St. Paul.

At the time, Colby and the CIA were the focus of an investigation into illegal clandestine activities by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was chaired by the late Frank Church (D-Idaho) and included then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) as a member. I described Colby as "a private man in a very private business, and reported that he "has apparently decided to lift some of the secrecy that has shrouded both him and his business for so many years."

I was referring to Colby's decision to cooperate with the Church committee and tell Congress about some of the CIA's darkest secrets, including the Phoenix Program, which earned his many enemies in the intelligence community and eventually led to his firing by President Ford.

As I wrote in a retrospective column in The Hill two days after Colby's body was recovered when he vanished on a solo canoe trip in the Chesapeake Bay in May, 1996, his death "was one of those events that seems destined to provoke endless controversy, just as his life did."

I noted that we had kept in occasional touch, and several years earlier, "he asked my help in getting a friend's novel published, but I didn't think it was up to par and I told him so. Then, in 1995, when I was writing about congressional oversight of the intelligence community in The Hill, I called him to ask for an interview.

We met for lunch, and he spoke a length about his experience in intelligence, some of which he had written about in his 1978 memoir, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA. He was dismissive of the plans for a fundamental restructuring of the intelligence community, as many in Congress were calling for.

"I'm not a great believer in the importance of wiring diagrams," he told me. "That's led to a lot of bureaucratic posturing. The main thing is having some leadership, telling people what you want them to do and following up. That's the key to any organization, and intelligence is no different."

Colby expressed no regrets about his controversial tenure at the CIA. "My major contribution was to bring intelligence into the public policy process, to make it part of the separation of powers," he declared.

I asked him if that was right decision. "We had to do it," he replied. "And when you do, you end up stronger, not weaker. If you get [Congress] to understand what you're doing and why they should vote for it, when something goes wrong, it's not just some dumb thing the CIA did, but what we did as Americans."

Colby clearly believed that congressional oversight of the intelligence community was essential in a democratic society. "The lack of oversight and accountability was the basic weakness then," he said. "Now, Congress is energized, and there is congressional oversight."

After our lunch, I called a retired top CIA official who knew Colby and was privy to the agency's secrets, and asked him if Colby was an honorable man in an often dishonorable business.

"I think Bill was an extremely honorable man," he replied. "In fact, in my view, he was one of the most decent, intelligent and honorable officers, with one or two exceptions, that I ever knew at the agency."

I didn't identify my source at the time because I promised him anonymity. But I can do it now because he is no longer living. He was Cleveland Cram, a fellow alum of my alma mater, St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and a veteran CIA officer who later wrote a history of the agency, which is still highly classified.

I don't know who's right or wrong in the contretemps over Carl Colby's documentary film about his father, or what really caused his death, but I'm convinced that William Colby was an honorable man.