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Needing a Good Guy for G-Men

April 26, 1987|Sanford J. Ungar | Sanford J. Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, is the author of "FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls" (Atlantic/Little, Brown).

WASHINGTON — When William H. Webster is confirmed by the Senate as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, attention will turn to the nomination of his successor as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

That decision is perhaps more important than the choice of someone to run the CIA or most Cabinet departments. An FBI director, through actions and statements, has a powerful influence over the performance of law enforcement agencies at all levels, and his standards of behavior determine public attitudes toward those agencies. His reputation may even affect foreign opinion toward the United States.

The FBI director tends to be much better known than, say, the U.S. attorney general. If he introduces high standards and scientific techniques, as J. Edgar Hoover did in his early days, he will be revered. If, on the other hand, he seems obsessed by subversives and bogymen, as was Hoover toward the end of his 50-year career, he will be held up to ridicule.

There is a serious risk that in a bipartisan orgy of satisfaction with Webster's performance during the past nine years, senators will be inclined to relax their guards and endorse whomever President Reagan names.

So long as the White House produces a nominee with a plausible background in law enforcement, he may be able to count on an uncritical reception from the Senate Judiciary Committee; chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) is spending much of his time these days running for President. Indeed, some members of Congress suffer a severe case of outrage fatigue and they search for issues on which to support Reagan, still an immensely popular figure.

But it would be a mistake to wave a new FBI director through the confirmation process without proper scrutiny.

The truth is that the ghost of Hoover stalks the corridors of the fortress on Pennsylvania Avenue that bears his name. Though the FBI has gone through a recent period of calm, not all its problems have been solved.

The FBI budget is virtually out of control again, and some of the rigorous standards instituted in the late 1970s to govern "security" investigations may have begun to slip. With the wrong person at the top, the FBI could easily revert to the worst abuses of its past.

Webster is the fourth person to run the bureau since Hoover died in office in 1972. This straight-shooting former federal judge is given major credit for bringing the FBI into the modern era and restoring its reputation as an investigative force.

According to one of his former law clerks, Susan Appleton, now a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Webster's "honesty and integrity are so unshakable that he has been able to create a whole new image for the FBI."

New image or not, many congressional observers believe that certain realities have changed little since Hoover's time--and that the remnants of the old guard have even managed to pull the wool over Webster's eyes. "Few people understand the bureaucratic nightmare that can still be the FBI," says one Senate aide close to bureau affairs.

Thus, many agents are still unwilling to step out of line and question the traditional way of doing things. Thus, the FBI, out of fear of looking bad, has largely managed to avoid involvement with the country's most serious crime problem, the illegal drug trade.

And it seems relatively easy to persuade the FBI to back off, temporarily, from a criminal investigation in the name of "national security"--as the bureau apparently did (to Webster's belated embarrassment) when it first began looking into the role of Southern Air Transport in resupplying the contras .

For some insiders, that incident is an uncomfortable echo of the willingness of L. Patrick Gray III, former acting director, to delay investigating the Watergate affair in 1972 (and later to destroy evidence, an action that cost him his job). Yes, the FBI is a very different, much-reformed place since 1972. And yes, Webster played a significant role in the reformation. He, for example, aggressively recruited women and minorities as agents; among other advantages, that has made the bureau far more capable in conducting certain investigations. Webster also greatly improved FBI capability in counterespionage.

Yet the bureau's budget has expanded in a way that would astonish even Hoover, and Congress has watched it happen with a quiet acquiescence reminiscent of the days when Hoover himself reigned supreme. From an annual figure of $584 million in 1979, when Webster took over, the budget grew to more than $1.3 billion in 1987. For 1988, the Administration has requested nearly $1.5 billion.

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