Blog #22: The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

Lily Briscoe can wait a week. Today’s blog feels too topical to wait. On the day in which Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone missile in Yemen, on a day in which the media discussed the ethics of state conducted assassination, on a day in which The Guardian wondered about US obligations to Saleh’s thirty-three year old regime, I went to watch Carl Colby’s The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. The parallels between what is unfolding in the Middle East and what the documentary shows are disturbing.

While The Man Nobody Knew is a patremoir, and while I went to see it as a father film, it is also a powerful, historical document set. It probes William Colby’s ethical and moral journey as he goes from WWII OSS field officer to head of the CIA under Richard Nixon. Interviews with politicians and journalists like Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcraft, Zbigneiew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger, Bob Woodward, and Seymour Hersh raise all kinds of questions about the ethical dimensions of statecraft. Problems faced by Colby and his contemporaries—problems about the use of targeted assassination and the loyalty owed to unpopular dictators—parallel those faced by the Obama leadership today. So, too, do the problems of trying to keep up with world events and of making major decisions on the basis of partial, uncertain information. Among other things, Colby’s documentary contains a most unnerving audio clip of President Kennedy and his cabinet trying to steer their way through a CIA coup crisis.

Tomorrow’s blog will look at the personal side of The Man Nobody Knew. The patremoir elements of this documentary are as fascinating as the historical and political elements. The voiced part of the movie comes close to making William Colby a tragic, yet heroic figure; the unvoiced part of the movie seethes with anger and with hurt. Carl Colby’s telling of his father’s life is a deeply conflicted one.

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