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Sessions and the House Hoover Built. Suits by agents, Asian drugs, the CISPES probe, even `glasnost' test the top US G-man. AN INTERVIEW: WITH THE FBI DIRECTOR

THE professional honeymoon for William S. Sessions was disconcertingly brief. Three weeks after he was sworn in on Nov. 2, 1987, as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, riots broke out at federal prisons in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. Cuban refugees being detained there were protesting an agreement between Cuba and the United States to deport thousands of them to their homeland. They took 115 hostages.

``It was a huge crisis, and as compelling a circumstance as I've ever been in, because I've never had people for whom I was responsible [be] at risk,'' Director Sessions says. He pauses, apparently reflecting on his days as a judge in San Antonio.

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``It's a long way from Texas.''

The prison uprisings, which were quelled without a loss of life, were only the first of the flare-ups that greeted Mr. Sessions. The director soon found himself taking the heat for events that occurred under his predecessor: for an FBI probe of a political group that opposed US policies in Central America; and for alleged discrimination and racism lawsuits against the bureau by its own employees.

When he is not putting out internal FBI brush fires, he is trying to leave his personal mark on an agency that has a tier of seasoned and powerful lieutenants just below him. As he settles into the second year of his 10-year appointment, Sessions may find that leaving his mark may be the toughest job of all.

The tall, lanky Texan - a weekly Scrabble player and a mountain climber with a shelf of books about mountaineering - seems more disposed toward words than firearms or wiretaps. In a wide-ranging interview in his office in the fortress-like J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, Sessions talked about his first year in office, the bureau's priorities, and its problems. They are:

The CISPES investigation. Sessions said that ``within the next 60 days,'' he will decide what to do with files gathered during the probe of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

During two periods - 1981 and 1983-85 - the FBI investigated the group, which opposed US policies in Central America, for possible terrorist activities. In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last fall, Sessions said the investigation was ``flawed'' and had ``clear deficiencies.''

But the FBI still has files on people monitored during the CISPES probe. The bureau is being pushed to transfer the files to the National Archives. Sessions says that option is ``still under consideration,'' but the bureau cannot transfer all of them because some files are central to four lawsuits against the FBI.

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A report on what should be done with the files is in its final stages of review and will be turned over to Sessions within a month, FBI officials say. After that it would go to the Justice Department for approval. In the meantime, the FBI is considering individuals' requests that their files be purged.

The CISPES case raised concerns in Congress that there may have been other such ``flawed'' investigations, possibly invading Americans' privacy or First Amendment rights to free speech. Now the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog, is looking at all the counterterrorism cases since 1981 to see whether CISPES is an aberration. It will make its preliminary findings public in late spring or early summer.

In August, Sessions put in 33 policy changes to prevent another CISPES. These ranged from having high-level FBI officials keep closer tabs on cases to doing more thorough background checks on ``assets,'' or informants.

Stopping spies. Glasnost, or openness, in the Soviet Union has put the FBI on yellow alert. With warmer relations has come more Soviet access to the US. For example, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty means that Soviet inspectors are allowed to check out US missile silos.

Moreover, glasnost has meant more Soviets traveling abroad. ``Anytime you have a greater movement of people - Americans to Europe and Russians to the United States - you always have the potential for increased intelligence-gathering activity,'' Sessions says. The ``activity'' has increased, he adds, declining to say whether it is up significantly.

Drugs. Some law enforcement officials say the FBI has not done enough to prepare for this and other Asian activities. One former Justice Department official notes that the bureau has few Asian agents - 118, or 1.2 percent of the FBI's agents rolls - to penetrate what has become a growing problem in America: Asian drug gangs.

UNTIL recently, Asian organized crime garnered little attention among law enforcement agencies, according to an internal Justice Department report written last year. As recently as 1980, Asia was a negligible source of drugs, specifically heroin, in the US. Now, the area may supply up to 40 percent of the nation's heroin, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

What has emerged is an ever bolder group of Asian - particularly Hong Kong - drug gangs in places like California and New York City. In fact, Sessions says the FBI's success in cracking traditional organized crime in New York and elsewhere has been a mixed blessing, leaving a power vacuum into which Asian gangs have moved.

To combat these and other drug gangs, Sessions will extend a drug strategy that he and Jack Lawn, the head of the DEA, who knew Sessions in San Antonio, instituted last year. The ``joint drug plan'' had the FBI and DEA work together on investigations in six ``target'' cities: New York, Miami, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Within the next few weeks, Sessions will announce what he jokingly calls ``son of joint drug plan.'' That will authorize law enforcement officials from the FBI, DEA, and local police in other cities to come up with joint drug strategies.

The FBI's work force. Aside from the priorities driving the investigatory role of the FBI - foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, white-collar crime, counterterrorism, and drugs - Sessions has management priorities as well.

HE notes that by the end of his 10-year tenure, fully half the agents now in the bureau will have retired. As they do, he wants to get the work force to reflect the ethnic minorities in the country as a whole. Currently, the agents break down to 1.2 percent Asian, 4.6 percent Hispanic, 0.4 percent American Indian, 4.3 percent black, and 8.9 percent women. That compares with 3.3 percent Asian, 7.7 percent Hispanic, 0.6 percent American Indian, 12.2 percent black, and 51.2 percent women in the nation as a whole, according to the most recent US census figures that are available.

But minority recruiting may have been besmirched by the current controversy surrounding the department. One black agent recently sued the FBI, alleging that he was the victim of racist onslaughts within the bureau. An internal inquiry confirmed many of the incidents, and he is suing for punitive damages.

And three-fourths of the bureau's Hispanics sued the FBI - and won in court - for discrimination in both promotion and job opportunities. They also claimed that FBI has retaliated against them for bringing the suit. The judge found no evidence of that in almost all of the cases, though he is still looking at a couple of specific cases.

Sessions will not comment on ongoing litigation. But he says that such violations will not happen under his watch, and many FBI watchers on the Hill and elsewhere appear to believe him.

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