“I’ve read all five of his FBI files and there’s not a bad line in them. I’ve never read such files. He’s just a straight arrow.” So said Attorney General Griffin Bell after announcing the 1978 appointment of William Webster, a federal judge in St. Louis, as director of the FBI. The last few years have been unsettling for the agency as its dirty tricks from the past have come to light. But Webster, an Amherst graduate and former Navy lieutenant, has quietly gone about the job of refurbishing the FBI’s tarnished reputation: The word he often uses is “professionalism.” A Christian Scientist who does not drink hard liquor, Webster, 55, is rarely found on the Washington party circuit, preferring home life with his wife, Drusilla. They have a son and two daughters, one of whom, Katherine, 18, likes to practice pistol marksmanship at the FBI firing range (shown at right). Though he rarely gives interviews, Webster agreed to talk to Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE.
Did you have misgivings about leaving the bench to become the first director from outside the FBI?
The day I was to see the President I was beginning to have last-minute concerns because everything down the road seemed secure and predictable—a lifetime position and one I enjoyed. I stopped to talk with Judge Wade McCree, who’d left the bench to become Solicitor General. He said, “Bill, this is not a duty. Don’t take it if you think it’s a duty. What you’re doing now is important. But if you want a beautiful chance to serve your country, this is it.” That’s how it happened.
What of the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover?
Many people throughout the country have a great deal of respect and a warm memory for J. Edgar Hoover, while others have a deep-seated unforgiving attitude. But the bureau is not one man. It’s 20,000 people and the things we are trying to accomplish now.
Still, the discrediting of Hoover must have made your job more difficult?
Occasionally the public confuses the issues of 15 years ago with what is happening today. The times were different, and many of the things that were at issue then are not being done today and could not be done today.
What are the FBI’s most important areas of investigation now?
Organized crime, white-collar crime and foreign counterintelligence. Terrorist bombings have been cut in half in the last year from the previous two years. But whenever we have a skyjacking or a hostage situation, terrorism becomes No. 1 on our priority list. We’re relying on state and local agencies more and more to handle bank robbers.
What about computer fraud crimes?
I think we’re moving ahead. We now have a bill in Congress to give us jurisdiction, and we’re doubling our number of CPAs. Already we have solved one $10.2 million case.
Is there any legislation that seems to be hampering the bureau?
One unexpected effect of the Freedom of Information Act is that it unnecessarily exposes our informants to identification and risk. We feel the pinch: We’re down from 6,000 to 2,800 informants in the criminal field, and we have an unacceptably low number of informants in the terrorist field.
Should practicing homosexuals be FBI agents?
No. I think homosexuality is a significant factor in an agency such as ours where everyone in the building has access to top secret information.
Should the JFK or Martin Luther King assassination cases be reopened?
That’s a Justice Department policy decision. But it’s clear Oswald and James Earl Ray were the assassins. I’m convinced Ray was capable of moving through Canada and Europe, as he did, without somebody helping him.
Was there a Soviet informer working in the New York office of the FBI in recent years, as rumored?
I don’t give it much weight, although we’re always on the lookout for this. There certainly have been serious attempts to penetrate the FBI.
How do you protect society and still maintain individual rights?
That is what the FBI is really all about. There has always been a kind of tension in this area, protecting individual rights and a society from crime and disorder. If you strike the balance true, you’re less likely to have the pendulum swinging, as it has been for the last 10 years. You’ve got to meet changing public expectations by being more professional, by doing the job just a little bit better. Then you don’t have to say, “We need this sensitive technique or that intrusive method.”
Do you have enough time for yourself?
Possibly not, but I work hard at finding it. I was at our farm in Missouri two weekends ago. Yesterday I raked leaves at home. And I still cut my own grass. I take along a tennis racket in my suitcase most times when I travel. I haven’t played at the White House yet, but I put out a little challenge to the President at Camp David. I said my Amherst classmate Stansfield Turner [CIA director] and I would take on Cy Vance and the President. He didn’t take me up on it.