WASHINGTON — Ending a difficult four-month Administration search, President Reagan on Friday named U.S. District Judge William Steele Sessions as the new director of the FBI, calling him "a fair-minded, tough prosecutor and one of the finest federal judges on the bench today."
Reagan, standing beside Sessions on the White House South Lawn, told reporters that "Judge Sessions is well-recognized as a man of great personal integrity and honor, dedicated to the vigorous enforcement of the criminal laws of our country and to the even-handed administration of justice."
Sessions, 57, a Republican and former U.S. attorney, served a two-year stint in the Justice Department during President Richard M. Nixon's first term. He has been chief judge of the San Antonio-based U.S. District Court for West Texas since 1980.
His nomination drew quick praise from members of the Senate and from those who have observed his career as a judge and prosecutor. Praise centered on his administrative abilities and his reputation for being "tough but fair."
The selection of Sessions to head the FBI ends a lengthy and increasingly embarrassing search for a successor to William H. Webster, who was named to be director of the CIA in March. A number of higher-profile candidates had declined to take the job, including several other federal judges and former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who headed the search, said he did not believe that it took "very long," given the importance of the post. He contended that no one had actually turned the President down because he had not "specifically" offered the job to anyone else.
Sessions was introduced to Reagan earlier Friday by Meese after widespread press reports of his emergence as the leading candidate for the FBI directorship. The judge, who had told a San Antonio newspaper last March that he was interested in the job, flew to Washington from Texas on Thursday night for a morning meeting with Meese and a later session with the President.
Meese himself was a complicating factor in the issue because the Administration had sought to avoid announcing the FBI nomination while the attorney general testifies before Congress next week on his role in the Iran- contra affair. Officials had feared that controversy involving Meese at the hearings would have a negative impact on the FBI selection.
Nevertheless, Meese described Sessions as "a top-flight administrator of a major court system. This administrative experience is vital in directing the nationwide operations of the FBI."
Named by Ford
Sessions was named to the San Antonio federal court by President Gerald R. Ford in 1974 and has been chief judge on that bench for seven years. Fellow judges and law enforcement sources said he demonstrated keen administrative skills as chief judge and while serving on various judicial administration committees.
From 1971 to 1974, he was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas--a sprawling area that stretches hundreds of miles from San Antonio to El Paso. The district has experienced growing problems involving border, rural and urban crime, particularly drug abuse.
Sessions came to Washington with the Nixon Administration in 1969, sponsored by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), and joined the Justice Department to head a newly created government operations section in the criminal division. That section was responsible for three of the thorniest issues of the era: obscenity, draft evasion prosecutions and election fraud.
Quickly Won Praise
Colleagues from those years recall that he was resented initially as a section chief, not having come up through the career Justice Department ranks. But Sessions quickly won praise from colleagues for soliciting and accepting advice.
"He did a competent job in a difficult situation and we thought of him as decent, humble, without a touch of arrogance in him," one former Justice Department superior said. "Whether you agree or disagree with him, he is hard for anyone to dislike."
Sessions showed some of that amiable manner Friday in talking with reporters at the Justice Department after having lunch there with Meese and Webster. He said a reporter's description of him as "a West Texas tough guy" was "delightful," but he added that he would not wear a gun belt if he is confirmed as head of the FBI.
Tough on Obscenity
At the same time, Sessions showed a hard line on the issue of obscenity. "I don't look on this as a victimless crime," he said, dropping any trace of smile. "Some judges do. I certainly don't."
Sessions struck a similar tone in discussing how to "combat the menace--and I mean menace--of drug abuse."
His reputation for being tough on drug dealers won him immediate praise from Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). "There is no more urgent a need than to rid the country of our crime problem and no more important a person in this effort than the director of the FBI," Byrd said in a statement.
'Vacant Too Long'