WASHINGTON — Under the law that fixes his term of office, William H. Webster must step down as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by early 1988, and he recently asked an assistant to come up with clever responses to the increasingly frequent questions about his career plans.
"I might take a clue from the heavens like Halley's comet and depart in late 1986," was one suggestion, "but if I do, don't expect me back in 75 years."
The subject is no laughing matter though, as Webster himself realizes. The director of the FBI occupies one of the most sensitive positions in American government. And Webster's successor, whoever it is, will inevitably put his stamp on the nation's premier law enforcement agency as it continues a major transformation that began after the death of J. Edgar Hoover 14 years ago.
Under Webster and his immediate predecessors, the FBI has changed dramatically.
The bureau of Hoover's day emphasized such relatively simple crimes as auto theft because they led to eye-popping conviction rates that avoided controversy and loosened congressional pursestrings. Now the FBI has moved into such sensitive areas as labor racketeering, political corruption, organized crime and drugs.
It also has worked to increase the number of women and blacks and other minorities serving as agents. The bureau at last count totaled 8,946 special agents, including 356 blacks--4% of the total--versus only nine blacks in 1960 and 144 when Webster took over in February, 1978. Women agents today number 653, versus only 94 when Webster took over and none under Hoover.
But some of the changes, while winning praise as shifts toward more important and higher quality work, have nonetheless exposed the bureau to pressures and problems virtually unknown before.
The Abscam investigation, for instance, led to the successful prosecution of a United States senator, six congressmen and a number of local politicians and others in Pennsylvania. But it also exposed the FBI to charges of entrapment, charges that gave the bureau some uncomfortable days even though it was ultimately vindicated by the courts.
Similarly, its more open and forthright way of dealing with internal problems, while hailed as progress, has resulted in more than a dozen agents being publicly charged with crimes and improper conduct, including one case of espionage. In the past, bureau veterans note, errant agents were commonly forced out of the bureau with no public disclosure of their misdeeds.
And most experts now agree that the FBI has curbed the abuses that once made it feared by civil rights groups, leftists and others who challenged the political status quo.
Says one longtime bureau official: "In the old days, there was no due process for anyone inside the bureau or for the world outside" as far as the FBI's operating procedures were concerned.
It is this wide-ranging process of change that the next director of the FBI must guide and direct.
Webster, a moderate Republican who was serving on the federal circuit court of appeals when he was chosen by the Carter Administration, has played a key role. He has turned out to be an administrator who demands answers inside the organization and a highly effective advocate for the bureau with Congress and the executive branch. He has forged valuable alliances inside Washington's power elite under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
But some critics contend that Webster's personal integrity and political savvy have given the bureau a Teflon shield that fended off even valid criticism. They maintain the FBI is suffering from trying to take on too much, and that this overreaching shows up in lapses in the bureau's counterintelligence effort and in recent agent deaths.
Bureau defenders, including some top officials, reject such criticism as "sour grapes" and argue that the FBI is not seeking to expand its mission but only answering alarm bells rung by Congress and the executive branch.
10-Year Maximum Term
Some career officials inside the FBI and at the Justice Department lament the 1976 decision by Congress to establish a 10-year maximum term for the bureau's director--the decision that is now requiring Webster to depart.
Key members of Congress do not. Although Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who led the drive to establish the limited term, said he regards Webster as "a good director," he added that he would not make an exception for him.
"The purpose of the 10-year limit does not relate to any particular director," Byrd said. "It involves the FBI as an institution of government and the position of director generally."
The 10-year term was enacted in the wake of the nearly 48 years of increasingly autocratic command of the bureau by Hoover and the revelation that the man named to succeed him, L. Patrick Gray III, had burned potential Watergate-related evidence in the fireplace of his home.
Speculation on Successor