The Self-Inflicted Wounds Of Colby's CIA

ON the night William E. Colby paddled off into the murky waters of Maryland's Wicomico River, never to be seen alive again, Kenneth B. Osborn was welcoming customers at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Baltimore.

An odd pairing: "Bart" Osborn, a gregarious restaurant maitre d' with prematurely white hair and a happily acquired mid-life paunch; and Colby, the quiet, enigmatic former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. They would seem to have little in common. But the spy business makes strange bedfellows, ones the CIA has often had to regret - and none so more than the one it made of Osborn.

In 1967, Osborn went to Vietnam, assigned to an Army intelligence unit that worked closely with the CIA on a program called "Phoenix."

Phoenix was one of those things that went lethally wrong in Vietnam. Loudly touted by the U.S. mission when it was launched as a police program to find, arrest and legally prosecute the civilian members of the Viet Cong's shadow underground, it soon gave rise to rumors of a chaotic system of frontier justice, with mistaken arrests, arbitrary executions, and torture.

Colby, the head of the "pacification" program in Vietnam, was in charge of Phoenix. When word got around about wholesale murder, he sent out a memo to its operatives that the CIA didn't approve of assassinations. Nothing changed.

Meanwhile, Osborn came home and quietly mustered out. Colby came home in 1971 and was promoted.

Saigon-based reporters had long heard the rumors about Phoenix, but nobody had come forward to document them. Nor was Osborn eager to spill the beans: In 1970 he had enrolled at American University's School of International Service and was still considering a career in the CIA.

One day, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, however, Osborn picked up a young hitchhiker in Georgetown who asked him about his service in Vietnam. It was like loosening the lid on a boiling teapot.

"I told him how the Phoenix interrogators put dowels in the ears of people, how they dropped people from helicopters," Osborn recalled. "It was the heart of the war, it personified what the war was about - the indiscriminate killing of people."

Osborn's tale soon made its way to anti-war veterans who were gathering evidence of "war crimes" in Vietnam. Not long after, a congressional committee called. It made Osborn its star witness, under oath. He would eventually call Phoenix "a computerized genocide program."

Then it was Colby's turn. He took his place at the witness table, with a way of tilting his head at the television lights, that made his glasses look like a pair of communion wafers.

He admitted that Phoenix was responsible for 20,587 deaths, some of which included "illegal killing." That was "unfortunate," he admitted to panel members who expressed disgust.

Colby went on to serve as Director of Central Intelligence from 1973 to 1975, which required him to spend much of his time on Capitol Hill explaining away the CIA's role in assassination plots and domestic spying. At the same time, he was running a secret CIA war in Angola, the true dimensions of which were buried for years.

By this time, Osborn had dropped out of college and got fatefully involved with CounterSpy, a magazine established to expose the operations and personnel of the CIA. To support himself, he began to tend bar.

Bad timing. In 1975, the CIA station chief in Athens was gunned down, giving the CIA immense leverage to attack its critics, especially CounterSpy, which it blamed for its agent's death (even though he'd been exposed previously elsewhere).

CounterSpy soon collapsed, a victim of dried-up funding and internal feuds. The country wanted to forget about Vietnam. Osborn, who had become comfortable in the media spotlight, was now just another Washington bartender with a war story. He developed a drinking problem and fell into debt. On the night Ronald Reagan was sworn in, he got on a bus to Florida.

Nor were the passing years kind to Colby. Sacked by President Ford, Colby was vilified by his former colleagues, who blamed him for giving away too many of the agency's secrets and gutting the counterintelligence branch - never mind that it was run by a man obsessed with Soviet moles who never found one.

"Phoenix," meanwhile, had entered the liberal lexicon as a shorthand for the routinized assassinations that were now being carried out by CIA-backed killers in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. An assassination manual the CIA wrote for the Nicaraguan Contras surfaced in the press; it seemed straight out of the pages of Osborn's Vietnam.

Last week, in an uncanny coincidence, Colby's legacy surfaced once again, even as rescue workers searched for his body.

Taped for a "60 Minutes" appearance a few weeks earlier, Colby weakly defended a CIA program that sent hundreds of South Vietnamese commandos to their doom in Communist North Vietnam. The kicker of the story was that Colby and his cohorts had reported the POWs dead and removed them from the payrolls. Unfortunately for Colby and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, some 200 of the former commandos had survived their years in prison to tell their pitiful stories, 30 years later.

The search for Colby went on, meanwhile, just as the U.S. government turned over documents related to its operations in Guatemala, where it has been accused of covering up the role of its agents in the slaying of two U.S. citizens, as well as the kidnapping, rape and torture of an American nun, Sister Dianna Ortiz. The documents virtually absolved the CIA in the crimes.

The day after Colby's body was discovered, however, The New York Times obtained some still-classified documents that the CIA had kept out of the pile, ones that did link the slayings to a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA's payroll.

Unfortunately for Ortiz, though, none of the documents released backed up her claim that an American stood in the shadows while she was tortured and raped by Guatemalan military thugs in 1989, an omission about which she was badgered by Cokie Roberts, who wanted proof on ABC's "Nightline."

Perhaps Roberts had forgotten the disclosure of the CIA's Angola Task Force commander, John Stockwell, who 20 years ago went public and described how the agency hid its worst secrets by writing "soft files" - ones that won't show up in the official records. Colby was Stockwell's boss.

Such a kaleidoscope of horrors - past and present - produced a stoic response in Osborn, who in the past decade returned to Maryland, where he won his battle with alcohol, earned a college degree, and carved out a prosperous restaurant career.

That's a better record than the CIA's, considering all that has transpired between the Iran-contra fiasco, the disclosures about Haitian thugs on its payroll, and the ham-handed discovery of Aldrich Ames.

Was the price too great for blowing the whistle on the Phoenix program? I asked him. "Well, it certainly changed my life," he said, exhaling slowly. "It taught me I could survive."

Quietly, he added, "But it's the proudest thing I've ever done. I have no regrets."

Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."