The Unforgiven

The cold death of spymaster William Colby

Published May 6, 1996 7:10PM (EDT)

William Colby was not destined to die peacefully in his sleep. His life was too full of blood and mystery for that. And so police found the spymaster's bloated body this morning face down in the cold marshes off the Potomac River. Some things end as they should.

I met Bill Colby a dozen years ago while writing a magazine story on three icons of the Vietnam War who had resurfaced as spokesmen for the nuclear disarmament movement -- Colby, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. The last two were clearly wrestling with the demons from their past. Bundy could only open up on the subject in a late-night interview in his hotel room after fortifying himself with a couple tall Scotches. McNamara, who was reportedly on the verge of a nervous breakdown when Lyndon Johnson finally took pity on him and removed him from the Pentagon, would later pour out his own mea culpa in his Vietnam memoir, "In Retrospect."

But Colby in 1984 was still the same trim, cold, owlish man who had run the CIA's infamous Phoenix program in Vietnam, which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. Though he was sharing the stage in these years with nuclear freeze activists and pacifists, he never renounced his past. There was a chilling pride in his monotone voice when he told me that by the North Vietnamese leadership's own admission, Phoenix was "the single most effective thing that was ever done against them."

But if this devout Catholic refused to make a confession, there was a sense that he was doing penance by going before peace rallies and being yelled at again and again for running "death squads" in Vietnam. He would sit on stage, calmly taking the verbal lashing, and just as calmly replying that yes, there had been some "excesses," but no, it was not a death-squad program. "We were arresting people, because obviously they were of more value to us alive than dead."

On the ground, though, like so much else in Vietnam, Phoenix was not as clean as the wise men would have liked. CIA renegade Frank Snepp would later write in his book, "Decent Interval," that no one "ever decided who was to be considered a Viet Cong cadreman...For lack of finite guidance, the Phoenix strike teams opted for a scattershot approach, picking up anyone who might be a suspect; and eventually, when the jails were filled to overflowing, they began simply taking the law, such as it was, into their own hands."

One of Colby's own daughters was rumored to be another casualty of his war. In 1973, Catherine Colby, who had lived with her father in Saigon in the early '60s, died of epilepsy and anorexia nervosa. But he denied that she was a psychological victim of the war. "She had physical and psychiatric problems," Colby told People magazine, "but on that subject (Vietnam) she was always very supportive of me."

If Colby outraged peace audiences during his ban-the-bomb years, he provoked murderous hatred from his colleagues in the espionage establishment when he directed the CIA during the tumultuous post-Watergate years of 1973-76. While predecessor Richard Helms was "the man who kept the secrets," Colby was the man who let them out and the spy priesthood never forgave him for this or for firing the strange, obsessed mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton. But in Colby's mind, he was, again, simply doing the rational thing, cooperating with Congressional investigators in order to restore public trust in the agency.

He had begun his spying career as "the traditional gray man, so inconspicuous that he can never catch the waiter's eye in a restaurant," as he described himself in his 1978 memoir, "Honorable Man: My Life in the CIA." But by the time Colby was dismissed by President Ford, he was notorious, a man reviled both inside and outside governing circles.

In the final two decades of his life, he worked in Washington as an attorney and consultant. Last year, he and a retired Soviet agent portrayed themselves in a computer game called "Spycraft." But he will not be remembered for any of this. William Colby was a former executioner who could not win the peace movement's love, a former company man condemned as a traitor by his own firm.

Gringos go home!

U.S. expats not so welcome in decades-old Mexican paradise.



America's crackdown on illegal immigrants is finding an odd echo in this picture-postcard town in central Mexico. The local citizenry are up in arms over the growing number of "illegal" Americans living here.
Last month, just after the videotape of Riverside County sheriffs beating Mexican immigrants aired nationwide, the town vented its feelings in an anti-U.S. immigrant march. About 150 residents -- mainly farmworkers and people with relatives in the U.S. -- demanded the ouster of Americans they claim are renting out homes without paying taxes on the proceeds, as required by law. Others, they say, work without visas or exploit Mexican workers by not paying them overtime.
"They're treated well here," says Eric Ramirez, one of the march's organizers. "What we'd like is that our people be treated the same way over there."
All this has ruffled feathers in this idyllic town, whose cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants, craft stores and brightly painted homes, and where the main activities seem to be shopping and sipping coffee.

Americans who live here dispute the claims. "Nobody will hire us without proper documentation," says Sareda Milosz,
who moved here from California 20 years ago and now edits the town's English-language newspaper, Atencio San Miguel. "There may be two or three. But most everybody around here who's working is definitely documented."
San Miguel -- pop. 80,000 -- has perhaps the largest number of U.S. immigrants per capita of any town in Mexico. Attracted to its laid-back charms, Americans started migrating here in the 1940s, when the town was a hangout for artists and bohemians of various stripes. Neal Casady, the model for the central character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," died in San Miguel in 1968.
Now, about 2,500 foreigners live here year-round, most of them U.S. retirees. They are joined by several thousand more during the winter -- mostly snowbirds and art and language students. The mayor's mother is American. Americans are moving forces behind a variety of organizations serving old people and children. Some now own businesses. Many own homes. The fact that Americans own some of the nicest, oldest homes in San Miguel rankles a number of residents.
Meanwhile, the buying power of the Americans has made life in San Miguel expensive by Mexican standards. Prices for real estate and cars are in dollars. "Some people have been here 20, 25 years and still don't speak Spanish," complains Eduardo Lera, owner of a computer store and a member of the San Miguel Citizens Forum, which sponsored last month's march.
The march left Americans feeling uneasy, according to Milosz, the newspaper editor. "I felt embarrassed and threatened at the same time," she says.
Currently the march's organizers are gathering documentation on illegal American immigrants but they're not sure what they will do with it. The Mexican government has as much interest in keeping illegal Americans out of the country as it does in keeping Mexicans in, which is to say very little.

) Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Doing hard time

"I went to Tennessee Women's Correctional Facility and got locked down on a life-sentence death-row pod, and left there.
For how long?
"Just a half an hour. It was so intense to be there...."

-- Actress Sharon Stone, in a San Francisco Chronicle interview, on how she prepared for the role of a death row inmate in "Last Dance."

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

MORE FROM David Talbot

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