Lt. Col. Lucien E. Conein

Jedburgh teams suit up in England prior to boarding a ‘Carpetbagger’ B-24 Liberator drop aircraft, August 1944. (U.S. Army photo)
Jedburgh teams suit up in England prior to boarding a ‘Carpetbagger’ B-24 Liberator drop aircraft, August 1944. (U.S. Army photo)

In 1971, retired Army Lt. Col. Lucien Conein declined an offer to join the "plumbers" who bungled the Watergate burglary. "If I'd been involved, we would have done it right," he later said.

He may have been correct. Conein was an intelligence agent whose career spanned five decades, four government agencies, numerous countries, and countless covert operations. Colleagues called him "Lulu," "Luigi" and often "lieutenant colonel," but very few people knew very much about him. His 1998 Bastille Day funeral was thought by many of his colleagues to signal the end of an era. Conein's "swashbuckling soldier of fortune" persona, as Stanley Karnow characterized it, was seen by some as a loose cannon — yet he had a reputation for being a thorough professional.

The Paris-born Conein grew up in Kansas City, brought there to be raised by his World War I-bride aunt, but retained his French citizenship. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the French Army. But after the 1940 fall of France, he returned to the U.S. and joined the Army, landing an assignment with the Office of Strategic Services. As one of the "Jedburghs" -- an elite unit named after its training camp in Scotland -- he parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to deliver arms to French resistance forces. When the European theater closed, Conein was sent to the Pacific conducting raids against Japanese-held installations in North Vietnam. He was awarded the Legion of Honor for his negotiations with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, which resulted in the release of several interned French residents.

Keeping his military rank and position as cover, Conein was transferred to the Central Intelligence Agency when it formed in 1947. Whether infiltrating Eastern Europe with saboteurs, training paramilitary forces in Iran, or burying coffins filled with weapons caches near Saigon, he was, in David Halberstam's words, "someone sprung to life from a pulp adventure." But he remained "the indispensable man" for Henry Cabot Lodge, President Kennedy's ambassador to Vietnam, who appointed Conein as his liaison with the generals plotting to assassinate President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

Unhappy with the huge military disaster Vietnam became, Conein retired from the CIA in 1968 and, from 1973-1984, ran secret operations for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"I cannot allow the passing of Conein without noting that whether his stories were true or not is immaterial; they should have been," a colleague said when Conein died.

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