Letter to the Editor

The William Colby we knew

We would like to provide a fuller explanation of our views on two important issues raised by the movie directed by Carl Colby, our brother and uncle, and highlighted in Ian Shapira’s Nov. 19 Metro article, “Family split over son’s tale of CIA spymaster”:

Carl’s movie, “The Man Nobody Knew,” about our father and grandfather, William Colby, is a powerful and thoughtful film that deftly captures many of the knotty subtleties that characterized the former CIA director’s work and life. Even as we differ with many of Carl’s assessments of him, the film leaves the viewer wrestling with some of the same questions that we have been grappling with throughout our lives.

There are bound to be differing perspectives about a movie such as this. Because of the film’s exposure and Shapira’s article, we believe it incumbent upon us to clarify a few points of public interest on which we differ from Carl’s viewpoint and which we think are germane to understanding William Colby’s life and legacy.

Our most important point is that his death at age 76 was an accident. Of course, it is impossible to know exactly what transpired, but the evidence points most clearly to a verdict of accidental death, just as the Maryland state coroner concluded, rather than that he took his own life.

The coroner reported that William Colby had “severe calcified atherosclerosis,” or hardening of the arteries, “which would predispose him to a stroke or heart attack.” The coroner concluded that Colby had “likely . . . suffered a complication of this atherosclerosis which precipitated him into the cold water in a debilitated state and he succumbed to the effects of hypothermia and drowned.”

Colby had not taken any steps normally associated with a suicide, such as leaving a note or concluding any outstanding affairs. Indeed, he left the house door open, and his computer and the lights on. He had just completed an arduous day readying his sailboat for the summer.

Second, the suicide account does not fit with Colby’s character. Going out for a canoe ride at night was not out of the ordinary for a man who had once driven a motorbike through Viet Cong-controlled country and volunteered for some of World War II’s boldest missions. But though he was bold, he always acted deliberately. The explanation that he took his own life works only if it is understood to have been an impulsive act. William Colby was a man who was used to the idea of death and had dealt with it all his life. He was never a quitter.

With this evidence in hand, we take our father and grandfather’s advice in interpreting the data. As he said, the shortest distance between two points is usually the right answer. The evidence points in the direction of accidental death.

Finally, in the film, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft describes William Colby as a “tortured soul,” suggesting that his policy of increased but measured openness and cooperation for the CIA was driven by this inner turmoil. We are both great admirers of Scowcroft, but we differ with him markedly. As his many speeches and remarks at the time and subsequently and the CIA’s recently declassified history of his tenure make clear, Colby’s policies of cooperation with Congress and of accountability to the Constitution were driven by a combination of principle and pragmatic political calculation. Whether he made the right calls is for others to decide, but to say that he was a “tortured soul” is to misunderstand and caricature what he was doing.

Jonathan E. Colby, Chevy Chase

Elbridge A. Colby, Washington

The writers are William Colby’s son and grandson, respectively.

 
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