- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "A Marine Officer"
Best Defense guest columnist
William Colby began his career in the Office of Strategic Services in World War II. Following the war, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency where he would eventually rise to be the director of central intelligence (DCI), having run the highly controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam along the way. Mr. Colby’s ascension to DCI came at the nadir of the CIA’s history. The previous DCI had recently eviscerated the directorate of operations, firing swaths of CIA clandestine officers. The CIA was implicated in the Watergate scandal, and Saigon was about to fall. To further exacerbate his problems, Director Colby learned for the first time of many of the CIA’s illegal activities like assassination attempts, mind control experiments, secret prisons, wiretapping and surveillance of citizens, and so on. Initially, Mr. Colby tried to hide the secrets and begin the monumental task of rebuilding the CIA, but he was honest with New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh in an interview in late 1974 concerning the file of CIA illegal activities that Director Colby maintained.
As DCI in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Director Colby was called before congressional committees many times. During those testimonies he laid bare a great deal of the CIA’s past misdeeds. During the testimony, Mr. Colby felt that there was a very real risk of the CIA itself being disbanded. He put his agency and mission before his career. He told the truth to Congress. He tried to inform Congress without putting agency employees at risk, and he probably saved the agency. In a documentary about William Colby’s life, his son suggests that during his testimony Director Colby, a devout Catholic, may have been atoning for his past sins regarding the Phoenix program and other acts. Many in the administration felt that he shared too much with Congress, but they viewed the problem through a political lens. William Colby correctly viewed the problem in terms of his duty to the country, Congress, and agency. Henry Kissinger told the president, "Colby must be brought under control," while Secretary Schlesinger informed President Ford Colby was being, "too damned cooperative with the Congress."
The director took a hammering from the Congressional committees and was eventually forced to step down by the Ford administration in favor of George H.W. Bush, a political appointee. As a result of his actions, the CIA was slowly able to rebuild itself and its reputation while regaining the trust and confidence of the American people. While that trust and confidence may wax and wane, never has a DCI more correctly chosen transparency and disclosure in order to save the agency and restore the faith and confidence of the American people in its intelligence agencies.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures, no one in the current political environment is taking the role of William Colby. While one may take issue with the manner of disclosure (and I certainly do), it’s much more difficult to argue that Mr. Snowden didn’t reveal abuses. During Mr. Colby’s directorship, the DCI was the head of national intelligence, so his modern day equivalent is James Clapper. Gen. Clapper has not lived up to the legacy of William Colby. Gen. Alexander also has failed to protect the National Security Agency (NSA) the same way William Colby did for the CIA. While the NSA may not be enduring an existential crisis, a continued lack of transparency could result in our nation’s premier signals intelligence collection entity stripped of the ability to conduct meaningful, substantive collection as a result of an overcorrection by a Congress and/or executive branch who feel snubbed by continued obfuscation from Generals Clapper and Alexander.
Both these men have enjoyed long, successful careers, and while in the short term it may seem like a disgrace to endure bruising testimony and an ultimate resignation, one of these two men could, in fact, cement a legacy as savior of the NSA by providing sincere, frank testimony to Congress. Congress will be less likely to strip the NSA of its authorities if it feels its powers of oversight have been restored. If one of these gentlemen would provide candid testimony, perhaps even at the cost of their career, they could salvage the damage Edward Snowden did, re-affirm the commitment to Congress, and — most importantly — regain the faith of the people of the United States.
If one of these men has the bravery to do that, then perhaps some good can come of this negative story. He could be our modern-day William Colby: A man who tells truth despite the political climate, despite the consequences for his career and, however ugly in the near term, sets his agency on a path to rejuvenation in the future.
"A Marine Officer" is just that. He deployed to Afghanistan twice. These opinions are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Defense Department, the U.S. government, nor even those of Drew Brees.