WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously endorsed the nomination of William H. Webster as CIA director Friday, virtually assuring confirmation by the full Senate as early as next week.
Before voting 15 to 0 for Webster, the Intelligence Committee met briefly behind closed doors to ask the FBI director about a newly acquired National Security Council document asking that Lt. Col. Oliver L. North contact the FBI about an undisclosed "classified matter."
North, who was fired from the NSC staff last November when the Iran- contra scandal came to light, made several attempts to delay criminal investigations involving figures linked to the private financing of Nicaragua's contras, according to previous disclosures at Webster's confirmation hearings.
However, Intelligence Committee leaders said after the unscheduled session with Webster Friday that the North overture proposed in the NSC document apparently never materialized, and that Webster said he had no knowledge of the document.
"All evidence is that the communication did not take place. They (the NSC) just talked about it," committee Chairman David L. Boren (D-Okla.) said.
Webster acknowledged to reporters that North several times had asked the FBI for "special consideration for reasons he felt were legitimate. He was trying to achieve various things four or five times over the course of about a two-year period."
However, Webster added, "it did not work for him. He did not achieve anything that he sought to achieve."
Question of Hindsight
Webster, referring to the FBI's failure to respond to various warnings about North's activities in the Iran and contra aid operations, conceded that "with 20-20 hindsight things might have been done differently."
Webster, 63, a former federal judge from St. Louis, has been FBI director for nearly 10 years. He was named by President Reagan to replace William J. Casey as CIA director. Casey resigned last February after suffering a seizure related to a brain tumor.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), in a statement after the committee vote, said that he supported Webster's move to the CIA with reservations.
"While the evidence does not raise a serious question about Judge Webster's qualifications," Specter said, "his confirmation hearings suggest that the FBI, and to some extent Judge Webster himself, did not respond to clear warnings to stop Lt. Col. North's improper, if not illegal, activities."
'Winked at' Violations
Specter speculated that "North's key position in the National Security Council, in conjunction with the President's strong personal support of the contras, created a climate where the FBI winked at possible violations of law involving the contras."
In one contact between North and the FBI, the NSC aide had warned the bureau about the sensitivity of its investigation of Southern Air Transport, which has been accused of ferrying arms to the contras at a time when U.S. aid for the rebels was banned.
Final action on Webster's confirmation might be held up a bit by Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), who threatened in an interview to filibuster the nomination unless Webster rejects an FBI staff recommendation to close the bureau's Butte, Mont., office.
Rash of Murders Cited
"To hell with 'em," Melcher said of the plans. The remote outpost was used by the late J. Edgar Hoover as a doghouse for disfavored agents, but Melcher is demanding that it be expanded to help solve a rash of murders on a Cheyenne Indian reservation in his state.
Melcher, who has engaged in several filibusters--notably one on the 1985 farm bill that infuriated many colleagues--said he was angry about plans to shift the FBI's Butte operations to Salt Lake City in a streamlining move.
Noting that the FBI has responsibility for investigating major crimes on seven Indian reservations and two national parks in his state, Melcher said that the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, population 3,000, has nine unsolved murder cases.
"What I want is not less of the FBI--I want them to start having a program to clean this up," Melcher said he has told Webster's assistants. "Computers and all that stuff are great, but when they say they can be farther away and be more effective, that's baloney."
The Montanan said it was "a funny thing" that Hoover "equated Butte with Siberia" because "a lot of agents like to be assigned to Butte. If you want to hunt and fish, you're right in the middle of it."