When I asked CIA director Bill Colby in 1975 about rumors that the agency was involved in assassination conspiracies, he said, "Not any more." That was the confirmation I needed to break the story on the CBS Evening News. And, when Colby's predecessor, Richard Helms, was called back from his embassy position in Tehran to testify before the ensuing investigating committees, he was understandably furious not only with me, but especially with his colleague who had broken the spymaster code of silence.
Colby did more than that. He fired James Angleton, the powerful chief of counterintelligence, whom he considered paranoid. In the wake of Watergate, Colby compiled a 693-page report that became known, familiarly and bitterly, as "the Family Jewels." It documented countless acts of agency malfeasance, from illegal surveillance in this country to drug experiments, lethal in at least one case, on unsuspecting subjects.
Much of this Colby testified about in open session of congressional committees. That helped to make 1975 what a more recent ex-director, Robert Gates, called in his recent book, "From the Shadows," the worst year in the agency's history. He said that was the year "we all would go home at night and face spouses who had watched news of poison-dart guns and assassination attempts and other nefarious activities, and question whether that was a place they wanted a spouse or father or mother to work."
The spooks, so long secure behind their secrecy, hated Bill Colby for exposing them to the sunlight. But he believed that in a democracy even a secret agency has to be accountable and not break the law - not the American law, anyway.
What made it worse for the professionals was that he was not a wet-behind-the-ears outsider, but a veteran himself, the OSS operative who had parachuted into France on D-Day, the man who had run an infiltration project called the "Phoenix Program" in Vietnam, the agency's biggest-ever covert operation.
But, Colby, once a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, believed that after an irresponsible quarter of a century, the CIA had to be opened up to the sunlight to save it. For being too cooperative with congressional investigations, he was fired by President Ford, replaced by the more accommodating George Bush.
Colby's Book, "Honorable Men," concludes with the hope for a younger generation of "American intelligence officers under law," making their contribution to "a safer and better world."
A personal note: In 1976 Colby was to be my guest at the annual dinner of congressional correspondents. When I became controversial myself for the publication of a suppressed congressional report on CIA misdeeds, I called Colby and offered to spare him the embarrassment of attending the dinner with me. He said he still wanted to come - and did, causing a lot of mouths to drop in the ballroom.
In March, I was on a symposium panel on intelligence reform with Colby. It happened to be the 20th anniversary of that dinner, and I told the audience of what I have always thought of as a class act. It was the act of a person with loyalties going beyond protecting spies.