Shadow Warrior

Title:                      Shadow Warrior

Author:                 Randall B. Woods

Woods, Randall B. (2013). Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA. New York: Basic Books

LCCN:    2012040332

UB271.U52 C657 2013


  • The disappearance — The Colbys and the Egans — Jedburgh — A bridge too far — The Agency — Covert operations on the periphery of the Cold War — Political action and La Dolce Vita — Cold war cockpit — Fighting a people’s war — The military ascendant — Secret armies — Launching the other war — CORDS: a Peace Corps with guns — Birds of peace and birds of war — The family jewels — Ascension — Revelations — Dancing with Henry — Death of a dream — Fight for survival — Epilogue.


Date Updated:  October 6, 2015

Reviewed by Stephen Irving Max Schwab.[1]

At an academic conference at the University of Texas in 1977 I [Stephen Irving Max Schwab] gained an insight into William Colby’s impassive personality. As the featured speaker, Colby was sitting by himself on the stage waiting to be introduced. The lecture hall was filled, with several student protesters brandishing placards denouncing the former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and creator/director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s controversial Phoenix program during the Vietnam War. Suddenly, a group of angry demonstrators approached the stage, prompting the local police and Texas Rangers to mobilize against them.

Unruffled, Colby repeatedly asked the officials to “let them come on up.” Paying no heed to Colby’s pleas, the police seized the protesters and hustled them off to jail. Before he began his formal remarks, Colby commented that “having skied down mountains in Norway with German bullets whizzing past,” he wasn’t afraid to confront a group of student radicals. At that time I was unaware that he had done just that and more as a Jedburgh in German occupied Norway and France. After his talk, Colby unobtrusively contributed $20 to help bail the protesters. At the time, I wondered if Colby’s actions reflected poor judgment or bravado, but now, after reading Randall Woods’s richly textured, nuanced, and comprehensive biography Shadow Warrior, I know that Colby couldn’t have responded in any other way.


Professor Woods recently told me that he had devoted seven years to researching and writing Shadow Warrior, and, from my perspective, it was time well spent. I not only served in the CIA under Colby’s leadership, I had some elucidating personal contact with him, including lunch on one occasion and cocktails on another. Yet, not until I absorbed the impact of Woods’s 479-page study did I really grasp Colby’s importance in the history of American intelligence and, indeed, his life-long dedication to democratic values, while at the same time realizing that those values are always at risk and need to be protected. Early in the work, Woods writes that “Catholic though he was, Colby was enough of a Niebuhrian to be conflicted.” This allusion to the philosopher and Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may become clearer when probing Niebuhr’s assertion that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary.”

As a senior clandestine operative, Colby had to follow the various dictates of five Presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald R. Ford. Yet, throughout his participation in the Cold War, he sought to strengthen foreign political parties that were centrist and left-of-center, and appeal to groups who were disenchanted with Communism, Prior to becoming a senior official at CIA headquarters, he was the architect of the now infamous Phoenix program that resulted in the killing of approximately twenty thousand Vietnamese civilians who had reportedly supported the Viet Cong. Even though Colby knew that his subordinates in Vietnam flagrantly disobeyed his orders not to engage in vendettas, he frequently turned a blind eye to their bloodletting and refused to admit that he had ever countenanced assassination. Once, in a heated argument with his own children over the immorality of the war, Bill lost his temper. Shouting that war by definition brutalized everyone who came in contact with it, he admitted that, in World War II, he had killed men “with bare hands.”


One of Woods’s key objectives is to paint a comprehensive portrait of Colby’s controversial personality. He describes Colby’s mother Margaret as “affectionate and carefree” qualities that Colby probably manifested towards the women he charmed and wooed. But in most of his professional and interpersonal dealings, Colby was “stern and intense,” like his father Eldridge. He shared his parents’ political values, being a lifelong progressive Democrat, and committed to the adventure, whetted by the childhood advancement of civil rights. When years he spent as an Army brat in I had my lunch with Colby, he was the CIA’s Executive Director, and, most of our conversation focused on how the Agency could attract more African-Americans to its professional Ranks.

Colby inherited his father’s love of adventure and willingness to               confront life-threatening dangers in the service of a noble cause. At Eldridge’s insistence, young William read Kenneth Roberts’s romantic novel Northwest Passage and took to heart its dictum: “On every side of us are men who hunt perpetually for their personal Northwest Passage, too often sacrificing health, strength, and life itself to the search; and who shall say that they are not happier in their quest than wiser, duller folk who sit at home venturing nothing.” Another book that, according Woods, was never far from Colby’s reach was T. E. Lawrence’s literary masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a study of the Arab struggle against Turkish dominance of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and Lawrence’s role in abetting that struggle. Woods suggests that Lawrence’s work instilled in Colby the belief that people everywhere hate, and will eventually oppose, foreign domination.

Alert to the growing likelihood fighting of U.S. involvement in World War II, Colby joined the Army in June1941, but not until 1943 did he find his true calling as a covert operative of the Office of Strategic Services(OSS). Colby had a thirst for foreign adventure, whetted by the childhood years he spent as an Army brat in Tientsin, China. His willingness to take risks for vital causes, and his fluency in French—he had spent his last undergraduate summer at Princeton (1939) bicycling through the Loire valley—qualified him to be a candidate for hazardous duty as a Jedburgh. He became a member of one of the 101 three-man teams who parachuted into occupied France coincident with the D-Day invasion, whose daunting missions were to impede German military retaliation, and to locate, arm, and organize members of the French Resistance into effective fighting units. Even though Colby was extremely nearsighted and had failed the eye exam for paratrooper training, the military physician approved him for Jedburgh membership, noting that he probably could at least see·the ground.

Colby’s wartime experiences, which included identifying double agents in France, blowing up rail lines, bridges, and dams, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, skiing down frozen waterfalls just ahead of the enemy in Norway, and compelling hostile Germans to surrender, gave young Colby lasting self-confidence and strength of character. He also developed lifelong commitments to fighting for democratic principles and, when necessary, the use of counterinsurgency and covert action.

When World War II ended, Colby returned to Columbia University Law School in New York City, and, after graduation, he worked briefly at the prestigious law firm headed by his OSS boss William J. Donovan. Increasingly uncomfortable with the wealthy Republican cast of his associates and bored with the nature of corporate law, he soon gravitated to Washington, D.C. There he obtained a position with the National Labor Relations Board and, as a labor lawyer, represented the interests of garment workers and migrant grape pickers.


In June 1950, following North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, Colby reasoned that this was the first salvo in a combined Sino-Soviet effort to conquer the free world. He returned to the fight against totalitarianism by joining the Western European Division of the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency. He later told his friend and CIA aide Jenonne Walker that the practice of law had bored him “out of his mind.” In the CIA’s early days, even new recruits, especially those with Colby’s wartime experience and former OSS contacts, were put on a fast track to plum assignments once they completed training. Colby’s first posting was to Stockholm, where one of his challenges was to identify and recruit Swedes with strong anticommunist beliefs, and to build networks that could form a viable resistance in the event of a Soviet takeover. Colby also recruited exiles from the Baltic and East European states who had fled to neutral Sweden after their countries were annexed by the Soviet Union. A refugee Estonian journalist warned Colby about the vast difference between the Nazi and Soviet occupations: namely, that the Germans, considering themselves “the master race,” were concerned mainly with subjugating the people they conquered, whereas the Soviets, imbued with Marxist-Leninist ideology, were intent on “thought control” and required each citizen to report to state authorities any suspicious behavior among their friends and acquaintances.

In an explanatory aside, Randall Woods observes that, now married with small children, Colby was required to live a double life—as simultaneously a clandestine operative and agent provocateur and as a devout Catholic and family man. Woods writes that “Colby was confident of his own internal moral compass …. He was a man who could distinguish between illusion and reality, or so he convinced himself.” His lifetime experiences, however, would call this self-confidence into question. Throughout his career, like many other operations officers, Colby would often use family outings as a deceptive cover for meeting agents, distributing radios, or passing money.

Later, Colby would try, perhaps too hard, to imbue his values to his sons. He would insist that his son John had a duty to remain at the boarding school that he detested—that he needed to “buck up and be somebody.” When John retorted that his father was self-absorbed and didn’t put his family first, Colby was furious, but relented somewhat and transferred him to another school closer to his grandmother’s home. Eventually, Colby would divorce his first wife, claiming it had always been a loveless marriage, and would leave the Catholic Church.

During his second overseas assignment, to Rome, Colby first locked horns with another former OSS operative, James J. Angleton, who had become the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence. Unlike Colby, Angleton was an archconservative who saw Communists, double-agents, and potential traitors virtually everywhere. Claire Booth Luce, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy and nominally Colby’s boss, shared Angleton’s perspective. She and Colby were frequently at odds because Colby’s strategy, in an Italy split ideologically among Communists, former Fascists, and democrats, was to cultivate left-of-center parties and try to wean away Communists who were increasingly disillusioned with Moscow. According to Woods’s research, Ambassador Luce and Colby would spar verbally over whether the U.S. should aid rightist or leftist forces to strengthen the political center, but, at the personal level, they probably had an affair.


By far the longest section of Woods’s biography of Colby—two hundred and fifteen pages-is devoted to his various assignments in Vietnam. It is both detailed and instructive. Woods acknowledges that, as part of the Kennedy administration’s support for a worldwide fight against Soviet Communism, the U.S. Special Forces, the “Green Berets,” expanded from 1,000 to more than 12,000, and that President John F. Kennedy approved the clandestine deployment of South Vietnamese agents into North Vietnam to try to convince the North Vietnamese Politburo of considerable internal opposition to its policies in its own sector.

Throughout his various tours associated with Vietnam, both in the field and at CIA headquarters, Colby persisted in his conviction that if the U.S. government had consistently backed his various efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, using diplomacy, counterinsurgency, and covert action, all of Vietnam eventually would have become a democracy. Time and again, Colby would argue his position with Presidents (Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon), Secretaries of Defense (Robert S. McNamara and Clark M. Clifford), Secretaries of State (Dean Rusk and Henry A. Kissinger), Generals (Paul Harkins, William Westmoreland, and Creighton Abrams), and others. Amazingly, even though he often was ignored or forced to make compromises that he personally abhorred, he was never castigated nor did his career suffer.

In May 1975, when all CIA personnel assigned to Vietnam had returned safely to America, Colby, who had by then become Director of the CIA, welcomed them home, announcing that “counterinsurgency and pacification had been a complete success.” Many in the audience were outraged, and field analyst Frank Snepp stood up and told Colby that he was wrong. Colby remonstrated, “But if the North Vietnamese Army had not invaded …” “That was precisely the point,” Snepp retorted. “After $150 billion, more than 55,000 American lives, and the best pacification/counterinsurgency program … South Vietnam had not been able to defend itself.” Colby remained unconvinced. The title of his second book, written in retirement, says it all: Lost Victory. Snepp, meanwhile, took his campaign public, writing two books to buttress his cause and running afoul of the Agency for having done so without proper vetting of his materials.[2]


In Shadow Warrior’s latter chapters, from “The Family Jewels” to “Dancing with Henry,” Randall Woods depicts the ongoing struggle among the White House, Congress, and the CIA that began with the Nixon administration’s efforts to make the CIA the “fall guy” for Watergate, based on the fact that the “plumbers” who broke into the National Democratic Party Headquarters were either former Agency personnel or contracted employees. Colby, both as Executive Director and then DCI, sought to limit the damage to the Agency’s reputation and exercise of its independent powers.

In defending Colby’s actions, especially his disclosures of CIA “wrongdoings” to Senator Frank F. Church’s investigative committee, Woods persuasively depicts the contrasting personalities of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and William Colby. He describes Kissinger as “secretive where he did not need to be,” and “a master of deception” who “loved complexity for complexity’s sake,” and “cared little about legal or constitutional niceties.” Colby, in turn, was “straightforward.” He “preferred friendship and trust” as tactics in acquiring assets over “threats and blackmail.” “He loved the clandestine world and covert operations because of the opportunity they provided for creativity.” Colby, in contrast to Kissinger, appears to have been governed by an innate democratic conscience. He was so sure of the rightness of his approach as a liberal internationalist that he was unflappable in the face of aggressive hostility. When a crank harassed him with 5 a.m. phone calls, denouncing him as a “murderer” and “war criminal,” Colby simply substituted the calls for his alarm clock. In response to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s comment about his “icy imperturbability,” Colby gently chided her: “Oh, don’t watch me like that. You are looking for something underneath that isn’t there.”


Woods readily admits that he doesn’t know much about the history of strategic intelligence, but he is being too modest. As a consequence of his in-depth research and analysis, he certainly conveys an understanding of the professional environment in which William Colby worked and the challenges he faced. Yet his remarkable book would have been even more persuasive had it been more consciously grounded in the history of strategic intelligence.

That Woods knows little of the role of intelligence in American history between the American Revolution and the Civil War is fair to say. Indeed, he writes that, during this period, “the nation, absorbed with domestic matters, saw no need to engage in international espionage or defend against it.” This generalization ignores important facts like the “contingency fund” that President George Washington requested and obtained from Congress to engage in secret activities, the military reconnaissance aspects of the Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike expeditions, Thomas Jefferson’s failed covert attempt to unseat Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, for backing the Barbary pirates—showcased in the Marine Hymn “to the shores of Tripoli,”[3] Andrew Jackson’s dispatch of the bumbling secret agent Anthony Butler to try to purchase Texas from Mexico, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s recourse to bribery and black propaganda to secure approval of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. This background information could have been easily acquired by consulting a comprehensive and brilliant work like Stephen Knotts’s well-researched Secret and Sanctioned: A History of American Covert Action.[4]

Also, Woods conveys a naive misperception of how the CIA functions as an executive department in his statement that “Colby was a realist first and an idealist second,” in reference to both Colby’s actions in Vietnam and his later obedience to his predecessor as DCI Richard Helms’s order for the Agency to distance itself from Watergate. Woods writes, “He [Colby] chose to follow Helms’s orders.”

My question for Woods would be: “Given that he worked for Helms, how could he have done otherwise and retained his top-level position?” If Randall Woods were asked the direct question, “Do you think that the CIA is now or has ever been a ‘rogue agency?’ he would probably answer, “No, I do not.” Yet, his chancy comments can detract from the overall powerful impact that this comprehensive work can have to elevate both Colby and the CIA in the minds of those who read it.

I strongly disagree with the observation made by veteran author Joseph Goulden whose heated review of Shadow Warrior in the Washington Times is nevertheless a surprisingly attentive and deeply engaged critique of Woods’s book.[5] Goulden takes Woods to task for failing to answer what he calls “the basic question: “Did he betray generations of fellow officers by going public with a so-called ‘family jewels’ list of CIA misdeeds? Or did the disclosure save the agency from dissolution by an angry Congress?” I contend that this is a loaded question that no one can answer to everyone’s satisfaction.

The mysterious nature of Colby’s sudden disappearance and death in late April 1996 at age 76 in the waters of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay has never been conclusively explained. Colby’s other son, Carl, has produced the video documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, which hinted that Colby committed suicide, a view that the rest of Colby’s family and Woods reject. Did Colby die of natural causes or was he murdered? This is the question that Woods raises at the beginning of his work. Wisely, he does not answer it.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[6]

Seventeen years after his death, one-time Director of Central Intelligence William B. Colby remains a controversial figure among many persons in and around the intelligence community. Did he betray generations of fellow officers by going public with a so-called “family jewels” list of CIA misdeeds over the years? Or did the disclosure save the agency from dissolution by an angry Congress?

Disappointingly, despite the sprawling length of Shadow Warrior, Randall B. Woods, a professor at the University of Arkansas, does not attempt to answer that basic question. At hand is a book that relies heavily upon secondary sources and offers very little fresh information about Colby. Further, Woods drops some conspiratorial hints that should raise eyebrows among persons familiar with the intelligence world. (For instance, he has rogue CIA contract officer Edwin Wilson forging documents to smear a prime minister of Australia in the 1970s, something that escaped the attention of the myriad investigators and writers who explored his villainous career.)

Drawing on Colby’s own memoirs and a book written with his cooperation, Shadow Warrior recounts a career that began with dangerous behind-the-lines missions for the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two. Most dramatically, Colby risked his life time and again during a sabotage operation against German rail lines in the frozen far-reaches of Norway.

Colby spent much of his CIA career in covert political operations, rather than the espionage (i.e., spying) that is the traditional mission of an intelligence agency. Notably, he directed efforts to prevent Soviet-financed candidates to win crucial post-war elections in Italy. (Woods also writes that “rumor had it” that Colby and Ambassador Clare Booth Luce, the glamorous blonde wife of Time-Llfe tycoon Henry Luce, “found one another personally congenial enough to conduct an affair.”)

Before his appointment as DCI, Colby’s major responsibility was directing pacification programs in Vietnam. And here lies a flaw that makes Shadow Warrior a hard slog for the reader. The several hundred pages describe, in numbing detail, Colby’s futile attempts to persuade the South Vietnamese government to win the support of its own population, and his ongoing frustration with both local officials and the US military, which seemed bent on waging conventional warfare. The government’s failure to build a viable society meant that the massive American military deployment was for naught.

When the Nixon White House tapped Colby to be DCI in 1973, he inherited a CIA that was in deep trouble. Several former contract officers were among the Watergate burglars, and Congress and the media pursued issues ranging from CIA participation in domestic spying, experiments with mind-altering drugs, a plot to overthrow President Salvador Allende in Chile, and numerous other matters. There was also a nasty flap concerning Colby’s firing of counterintelligence chief James J. Angleton.

Colby directed that agency officers give him details of any activities that could be considered “ques-tionable.” To the horror of many officers, especially in the clandestine service, Colby shared the results with the White House and key members of Congress. Promises of secrecy notwithstanding, much of the material was promptly leaked and made a noisy splash in the media.

Most surprisingly, Colby gave the Justice Department material that suggested his predecessor as DCI, Richard Helms, had misled Congress in a public hearing concerning the CIA’s role in the Allende affair. Helms’ defense was that he could not speak freely on a classified operation in a public forum. He pleaded no contest to the charge of misleading Congress and was fined.

(News of Helms’ plea came during a luncheon of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Several of Helms’ friends passed around a wastebasket that was soon filled with checks and $20 bills, more than enough to pay the fine and much of his legal expenses—a strong indication of how rank-and-file officers felt about Colby’s “betrayal.” Hard feelings between Helms and Colby lasted until their deaths. I attended several events over the years where both men were present. They did not exchange even a glance, much less a smile or handshake.)

Colby thought that full disclosure of CIA’s alleged misconduct would quell the public storm and blunt threats by some leading Congressmen to abolish CIA altogether. He was seriously wrong. Committees chaired by Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike thrashed the agency for months to come. Self-righteous staff members resembled nothing more than the dregs of a Berkeley dormitory. One woman who worked for Pike came to the office of Edward Proctor, the CIA deputy director for intelligence, bare foot and wearing jeans cut off at the cuff. Colby angrily called the committee staff a “ragtag” collection of “immature and publicity-seeking children.”

President Gerald Ford considered firing Colby over his fingering of Helms to the Justice Department but feared he would be accused of attempting a “cover-up.” Not until seven months later, in October.1975, did the White House force his resignation.

Six years later, Colby, then 62, stunned wife Barbara and their five children by announcing that he was leaving after 38 years of marriage to wed the 37-year-old former US Ambassador to Grenada, Sally A. Shelton. Smart and attractive, Shelton had joined the staff of a consulting firm run by Colby, and they quickly struck up a romance. According to Woods, Colby told a friend “that he knew two weeks after the marriage [to Barbara] that he had made a dreadful mistake.”

Colby proved his bravery time and again during his guerrilla years, and the covert operation he ran in Italy in the 1950s kept that nation from slipping into communism. But was he suited for overall head of America’s intelligence community? Despite Woods’ effort, that question remains unanswered.

[1] Stephen Irving Max Schwab, “Once a Jedburgh Always a Jedburgh,” International Journal Of Intelligence And Counterintelligence (27, 2 Summer 2014), pp.     Dr. Stephen Irving Max Schwab teaches courses on the history of Strategic Intelligence and the history of the Caribbean in the History Department at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Previously, he was Professor of International Relations, Intelligence, and Latin American Studies at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, from 1995-1999. A retired Central Intelligence Agency analyst specializing in Latin and South American affairs, Dr. Schwab served as Chief of the Andean Branch of the Agency’s South America Division from 1985- 1988, and Senior Analyst in that Division from 1991-1998. Holder of B.A. and M.A. degrees from the Washington University of St. Louis, Missouri, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Alabama. His book, Guantanamo, USA: The Untold History of America’s Cuban Outpost, was published in 2009 by the University Press of Kansas.

[2] Frank Snepp(1977). Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam; and Frank Snepp A. (1999) Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Secrecy and Free Speech. New York: Random House

[3] See, for example, Joseph Wheelan (2004). Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805 New York: Public Affairs.

[4] Stephen F. Knott (1996). Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press

[5] Goulden, J oseph C., “Book Review: Shadow Warrior,” The Washington Times (10 May 2013).

[6] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. 101-102). Joseph C, Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times and other publications. Most of the reviews cited appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications


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