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William Colby, Man of Contradictions, Found Dead at 76

May 6, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ William E. Colby was a professional spy and a man of contradictions. He was denounced as a war criminal over CIA assassinations in Vietnam. But he was fired as CIA director after advocating a retreat from cloak-and-dagger operations.

The contradictions followed him to the end. He was an avid outdoorsman but he died, apparently by drowning, while canoeing on a familiar river. He was 76.

Colby’s body was found washed up Monday on a sandbar of the Wicomico River not far from his southern Maryland vacation home, eight days after his empty canoe was found nearby. A state official said there was no sign of foul play.


Colby was dismissed as CIA director 20 years ago, after 3 1/2 years, by President Ford. Since then, he had promoted a nuclear freeze and big cuts in the military budget.

``The Cold War is over, and the military threat is now far less,″ he said in a 1992 ad. ``It’s time to cut our military budget by 50 percent and to invest that money in our schools, our health care and our economy.″ ,

For the past week, while searchers looked for him in the Wicomico, near where it empties into the Potomac, his widow, Sally Shelton-Colby, had refused to accept the assumption that he had drowned.

After she identified the body on Monday, she thanked the searchers and said her husband had left the world a better place.

``There wasn’t much that was left undone for him,″ she said. ``He fought fascism and communism and lived to see democracy take hold in the world.″

President Clinton said in a statement, ``Through a quarter of a century at the CIA, William Colby played a pivotal role in shaping our nation’s intelligence community. ... He made tough decisions when necessary _ and he was always guided by the core values of the country he loved.″

CIA Director John Deutch said, ``He faced up to severe challenges with openness and integrity.″

Colby was perfectly cast as a spy: colorless, soft-spoken, precise and thin. He fit this published description: ``Mr. Colby never seems to have a hair or an emotion out of place.″

Even Colby said, in his 1978 memoir, that he was ``the traditional gray man, so inconspicuous that he can never catch the waiter’s eye in a restaurant.″

But Colby was fired on Nov. 2, 1975, as head of the CIA after being accused of talking too much. He was said to have been too candid in testimony to congressional investigators; he had long ago aroused the ire of the agency’s old guard for trying to channel more effort into the gathering, evaluation and analysis of information and less into covert operation.

Two months after the firing, Ford honored Colby with the National Security Medal, citing his ``outstanding contribution in the field of intelligence.″

Colby was born Jan. 4, 1920, in St. Paul, Minn., the son of a career Army officer. He moved from post to post, eventually graduating from Princeton University with a Phi Beta Kappa key in 1940.

He enrolled in Columbia University Law School but left after a year to become an army parachutist. He answered a call for French-speaking volunteers and joined the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II American father of the CIA.

In August 1944, Colby parachuted into France to join a resistance group fighting to link up with advancing U.S. forces. That assignment led to one in which he parachuted behind enemy lines in Norway to blow up a Nazi rail line. He earned the U.S. Silver Star and the French Croix de Guerre.

Discharged in 1945 with the rank of major, Colby got his law degree from Columbia, then practiced two years with a New York law firm headed by his former OSS commander, William J. Donovan.

Colby then worked briefly for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington and signed on with the Central Intelligence Agency. Under diplomatic cover, he served at the U.S. embassies in Stockholm and Rome, and became the CIA station chief in Saigon in 1959.

As American involvement grew in Vietnam, Colby helped develop an unsuccessful strategic hamlet program and directed the organization of Montagnard tribesmen for service in the U.S. special forces.

He left Saigon in 1962 and returned in 1966, eventually taking charge of the Vietnamese pacification program and its Phoenix project, aimed at rooting out the Viet Cong, the communist guerrilla organization.

Summoned to Washington by a Senate committee in 1970, Colby defended the project but conceded there may have been ``some illegal killing.″

He was nominated to be CIA director on May 10, 1973, by President Nixon, then struggling to extricate himself from the Watergate scandal.

Then came a major congressional investigation of the CIA, including allegations that it was involved in overseas assassination plots, illegal domestic spying, illegal eavesdropping and experimentation with the drug LSD.

Colby said later that some of Ford’s advisers felt ``I was responding too willingly to Congress; I was giving them information when I should have stonewalled them and refused to give them information.″

The former CIA director maintained that it was necessary to own up about past CIA misdeeds, ``to get rid of them and to demonstrate that CIA, itself, had corrected those a year and a half before.″

Colby was divorced in 1984 from the former Barbara Heinzen and married Sally Shelton. One of the five children from his first marriage, Catherine, died in 1974. The others are Jonathan, Carl, Paul and Christine.