Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

FBI Ouster Leaves Many Losers

Sessions's refusal to leave office quietly after a controversy over ethical charges has hurt his image, and that of the agency

NOBODY will ever confuse the "case of the fired director" with one of the more-glamorous exploits in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

By the time President Clinton finally ousted FBI Director William Sessions on Monday, the six-month controversy swirling around the FBI clearly had hurt a number of reputations.

About these ads

The big loser was Mr. Sessions himself, a former federal judge who arrived with a squeaky-clean reputation but left under an ethical cloud. He amazed many with his dogged refusal to take strong hints from his bosses to resign. As late as Saturday, he told Attorney General Janet Reno that he would not voluntarily leave his job.

Sessions tried to cast his intransigence as a high-minded defense of the bureau's integrity. "It is because I believe in the principle of an independent FBI that I have refused to voluntarily resign," he said Monday. But others saw the situation in a less-favorable light. "He fell in love with the glamour of the job and couldn't bear to leave it," says a former government official who has known Sessions for years.

Mr. Clinton also suffered a minor embarrassment from the affair. He hoped that controversy could be minimized by gently nudging Sessions out the door. Instead, he was forced to appear on TV to publicly fire a top law-enforcement official.

Some observers also argue that the bureau was hurt by the lack of direction from the top recently, but the agency's record seems to belie that claim. While the Sessions affair dragged on, the FBI cracked two rings of suspected Arab terrorists in New York City and apprehended eight neo-Nazi skinheads allegedly plotting a race war in Los Angeles.

"The agency continued to operate well because the director has very little impact on individual cases," says a government official who follows the FBI closely. "His purpose is to set the agenda for change and to act in defense of civil liberties, not to run cases."

Now, the director's job appears likely to go to federal Judge Louis Freeh, a former FBI agent known as a nonpolitical crime-fighter. If nominated and confirmed, Mr. Freeh will take over an agency that many say was improved by Sessions. "Bill Sessions will be remembered for his efforts to get full parity within the bureau for minority and women agents," says former FBI director William Webster. "He also advanced the bureau's forensic capabilities, especially in the DNA area."

But those achievements may be overshadowed by the controversy dominating Sessions's last six months in office. The controversy began Jan. 15 when the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility issued a report accusing him of improprieties, including evading taxes on his limousine, improperly using government travel funds, and misusing government money to build a $10,000 fence for his house.

About these ads

But since then-Attorney General William Barr was due to leave office in a few days, Mr. Barr left the Clinton administration to deal with the matter. A resolution was delayed because it took Clinton months to get an attorney general in place. Then several major investigations, including the World Trade Center bombing and the Waco cult standoff, intervened.

Finally, Sessions delayed the end by fighting the charges against him. He argued that he was being framed by Bush administration officials angry over the bureau's probe of Iraqgate, and by a "cabal" of subordinates upset with his integration of minority agents into the bureau.

At first, those arguments won Sessions some sympathy in Congress and the administration. "It wasn't a strong case [against him] at the beginning. The White House was not impressed with the original charges," says a former government official.

But his support faded after his wife, Alice, publicly accused his handpicked top lieutenants, including Deputy Director Floyd Clarke, of insubordination. The tactic backfired because it led top agents to privately tell Congress, the White House, and the press that they had lost confidence in Sessions. "Alice didn't help his case at all," says another former official.

By the end, it was no longer just a question of whether charges against Sessions were true. It was also a matter of whether he could effectively run the agency. Both factors contributed to the decision to fire him.

As Ms. Reno said in a letter to the president: "I have concluded that the director has exhibited a serious deficiency in judgment involving matters contained in the report, and that he does not command the respect and confidence needed to lead the bureau."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.