WASHINGTON — William Lee Colwell, formerly the No. 2 man at the FBI, is being considered to succeed FBI Director William H. Webster amid strong indications that U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen, the apparent front-runner, does not want the job, Reagan Administration sources said Wednesday.
Webster, it was learned, recently submitted Colwell's name to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III after Colwell, who has been teaching at the University of Arkansas since retiring from the FBI in 1985, surprised him by volunteering that he would be interested in the post.
Others said to be under consideration as Meese moves toward recommending a new director to President Reagan include Judge William W. Wilkins Jr. of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and Chief Judge William S. Sessions of the federal District Court in San Antonio.
Makes No Endorsement
Webster, who has been nominated to be director of central intelligence, said Wednesday that he has suggested names to Meese and has given his reaction to other names. He emphasized that he has not endorsed a particular candidate and said that several well-qualified individuals are being considered.
Colwell, 52, won wide respect at the FBI, where he served as acting director in Webster's absence, at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill. He holds master's and doctor's degrees in public administration and is now an associate professor in Little Rock, Ark.
A self-effacing man with a ready smile, Colwell is regarded by former FBI colleagues as the only bureau "insider" with a real chance for the post.
Jensen, former deputy attorney general until he became a federal judge in San Francisco last year, was immediately ranked as the top candidate to succeed Webster. A registered Democrat and longtime Meese associate here and in California, where he served as district attorney in Alameda County, Jensen is considered nonpartisan--a characteristic that would be helpful in winning confirmation to the 10-year post.
Wife Prefers Bay Area
But Jensen has told former associates that remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area is of prime importance to his wife, Barbara.
In an interview, Colwell said that the director's post is "not the type of job you apply for," adding that "I should not be--nor have I been--running an active campaign" for the job. "On the other hand, no one would know of my interest unless I talked to a few people, and I've done that." He declined to identify those to whom he had spoken.
Colwell, who goes by his middle name of Lee, recovered last year from colon cancer and complications that developed during the cancer operation.
Judge Wilkins, who was Reagan's first judicial nomination, served on the U.S. District Court in South Carolina until he was elevated to the appellate court last June. He has served as chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission since 1985.
Wilkins is being pushed for the FBI directorship by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a staunch Administration supporter. He served as a legal aide to Thurmond in 1970 and was state campaign director of Thurmond's 1972 reelection campaign.
Experience as Prosecutor
Judge Sessions, who has been on the court since 1974, has extensive experience as a prosecutor, having served as a Justice Department section chief and as U.S. attorney in Texas for three years.
Sessions, a friend of Webster, presided over the 1982 trial of the man convicted of killing U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. in Texas, a judge known as "Maximum John" for his tough sentences of drug dealers.
In an interview published Wednesday by the San Antonio Light, Sessions said he was contacted about the post March 5, two days after Webster's nomination to the CIA job. "If the opportunity comes and it's appropriate, I'll accept the job," he said in the interview.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) was described Wednesday by Administration officials as having a "long-shot" opportunity for the appointment. A former Pima County, Ariz., prosecutor before he joined the Senate 11 years ago, DeConcini has led efforts for a more effective drug strategy while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Certainly, if the President asked, I would have to give it (the FBI directorship) serious consideration," DeConcini said Wednesday. "It would be presumptuous not to. But I certainly don't expect it to happen."