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COLBY'S UNUSUAL LIFE RIVALED JAMES BOND

William Colby, the CIA spymaster who lived a most unusual life, did not die an unusual death, Maryland Natural Resources police said Monday.

He drowned in a canoeing accident on the river that runs alongside his Maryland vacation retreat, said police spokesman Lt. Mark Sanders. "There is nothing unusual about this case at all," Sanders said.But there was something very unusual about Colby, a thin, bespectacled, low-key spy who lived a life more interesting than a James Bond novel.

From the time he was parachuted into France and Norway to fight the Nazis in World War II to the days he spent spearheading secret CIA operations in South America and Vietnam, Colby was something of a CIA cipher - a man whose eyes never betrayed what he was thinking and whose words were picked for their economy of thought.

It was an image that Colby, 76, cultivated - so much so that his Rock Point, Md., neighbors said they had no idea who Colby was until the publicity surrounding the canoe accident brought the TV camera crews.

In his 1978 autobiography, "An Honorable Man: My Life in the CIA," Colby said the best spy is "the traditional gray man, so inconspicuous that he can never catch the waiter's eye in a restaurant."

Colby was that man - unexu-ber-ant, unexpressive, unpretentious and unobtrustive.

Many within the CIA still regard Colby as the agency's ultimate traitor - an insider appointed CIA director by President Nixon who made sensationally public the agency's darkest secrets. The late CIA director William Casey never forgave Colby for those actions.

It was Colby who opened the CIA files on the failed coups, the assassination plots, the recruit-ments of journalists and the spying on Americans that came under congressional scrutiny in the political backlash from the Watergate scandal. "The complete apparatchik," his detractors said.

One of his most controversial decisions as CIA director was the firing of the aged and much-regarded Soviet spy-hunter James Jesus Angleton, who was preoccupied with the belief the KGB had penetrated the agency with Soviet "moles" in the years before the discovery of Aldrich Ames.

"He led the agency through troubled times," President Clinton noted Monday.

Yet former CIA director Robert Gates credits Colby's public disclosures with actually saving the CIA from certain extinction had the so-called "dirty tricks" been disclosed independently.

According to Gates, Colby should go down in the CIA's history as one of the agency's heroes, rather than one of its destroyers. One result of Colby's action was the establishment of House and Senate intelligence committees to oversee the CIA, which previously was an agency subject only to the president's whim.

Much about Colby's personal life remains unknown or obscured by the CIA itself - and by Colby. Born in St. Paul, Minn., to an Army family, Colby wasn't part of the wealthy Old Boy network of spies recruited for the Office of Strategic Services - World War II's predecessor of the CIA, which wasn't created until 1947.

After graduating from Princeton, Colby joined the U.S. Army's Parachute Field Artillery and was sent behind the lines to work with the French resistance blowing up Nazi installations in 1944. He later led a team destroying rail lines to slow the German retreat from Norway in 1945.

Colby's career was forged in the cloak and dagger activities of the CIA's clandestine affairs, created by swashbuckling OSS Director William Donovan and William Casey.

Colby's expertise was in Vietnam, where he was first assigned in 1959, long before there was any real American involvement. The KGB charged Colby was in charge of CIA operations that assassinated and tortured suspected communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Colby acknowledged overseeing CIA activities there, but denied under oath any knowledge of assassination campaigns.

But it was as CIA director that Colby came into his own as a careerist who opened the doors to the darkest secrets of what was going on in Langley, Va., where the agency is headquartered.

In retirement, Colby's life took another turn as he became a vocal critic of the Reagan administration's military buildup, which he contended was extravagantly expensive, and unnecessary.