WASHINGTON — The Senate Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the nomination of William H. Webster as the new director of the CIA, praising the veteran FBI chief as a man of high principle capable of repairing the frayed relations between Congress and the nation's intelligence community.
The 94-1 confirmation vote reflected the high marks that the 63-year-old Webster, a moderate Republican and former federal judge in St. Louis, has won in Congress during his nine years as director of the FBI, a post to which he was named by former President Jimmy Carter.
Webster is "a man of extraordinary integrity, intelligence and dedication," said William S. Cohen (R-Me.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We are satisfied that Bill Webster certainly understands his role" and the role of the CIA.
The only vote against Webster's nomination was cast by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who complained of FBI harassment of "decent and law-abiding citizens" in his state. Last year, the Senate removed from office Nevada federal judge Harry E. Claiborne, based on his conviction for tax evasion after an FBI investigation that was heavily criticized in the state.
The Senate Intelligence Committee recommended approval of Webster after grilling him extensively about the FBI's diligence in pursuing hints of wrongdoing related to the Iran- contra scandal before the scope of the controversy became known.
He was also pressed about his willingness to keep Congress thoroughly informed about covert operations and to respect its foreign policy actions.
Webster was able to convince members that his agency had no substantive role in the Iran scandal, although high-level officials did have discussions with its central figure, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
He would "not try to be devious or cute" as CIA chief in responding to congressional questions, Webster pledged in the hearings. He also said he would avoid involvement in politics and would decline to serve in the President's Cabinet.
Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill that would also set a fixed seven-year-term for the director's job.
Webster becomes the 14th CIA director. He replaces the late William J. Casey, who resigned as director Jan. 29 after undergoing surgery for a cancerous brain tumor, and died May 6.
Webster assumes the post at a time when relations between the agency and the Congress are the most strained in a decade.
Casey's Role in Scandal
Testimony before the congressional hearings on the Iran affair has indicated that Casey had substantial knowledge of the secret efforts to provide arms to the contras at a time when U.S. government aid to the rebels was banned by Congress. Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees have complained that Casey was evasive and deceptive in briefing them on the agency's role in the Iran operation and on other covert activities.
Antagonism over those grievances helped to undercut the chances of Reagan's first nominee for the job, CIA Deputy Director Robert M. Gates. His nomination was later withdrawn.
Although only one vote was cast against Webster's nomination, the confirmation vote had been held up for nearly three weeks by Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.). Melcher used the delay tactics to protest the FBI's plan to downgrade its office in Butte, Mont.
Melcher relented only after a series of meetings this past weekend with Webster and his top aides culminated in a promise that the FBI would "reassess" the need for a fully staffed office in the state.
"Sometimes," Melcher said in an interview Tuesday, "it pays to be ornery."