WASHINGTON — At one stop in a six-nation Middle East tour this summer, Bill Webster and an aide were distracted by an insistent buzzing. A search led them to a nearby door.
Webster pulled it open to reveal an eavesdropper, a wire in each hand and a mortified look on his face.
The reaction of the new U.S. director of central intelligence was true to form. "I smiled," he said.
William Hedgecock Webster, successor since last May to William J. Casey atop the American intelligence bureaucracy, doesn't act rashly. Most people find that admirable.
Harangued by Congress to clean up a CIA battered by the Iran-Contra scandal, he instead asked a private lawyer to review the list of alleged misdeeds and wrongdoers--a review now in its sixth month. The lawmakers have been mollified, so far, with paper reforms that some say have as much public-relations value as usefulness in reining in the U.S. espionage apparatus.
Changes are coming at the CIA and other arms of the intelligence community, Webster said in an interview, but they will be "more evolutionary than revolutionary."
"He's right to be judicious," said Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Iran-Contra investigative panel. "He's off to a good start."
Yet his measured pace already has members of Congress fidgeting and intelligence experts inside and outside the community "waiting for the other shoe to drop," several said in recent interviews.
'Hasn't Had Impact Yet'
"He's still an enigma," one veteran Washington expert said last month in describing the CIA's internal assessment of the 63-year-old former FBI director. "He hasn't had any impact yet."
Some legislators, and fewer experts, demand a CIA housecleaning that will send an unmistakable message about Webster's standards of conduct. More experts want a tough look at an intelligence empire that has mushroomed under seven years of lavish funding--annual budget hikes have neared 25%--and capricious management.
Crucial to Defense
They say Webster must boost morale and recruiting, increase the surveillance from space that is crucial to defense and arms control, fix a counterintelligence program that currently cannot catch foreign spies and use more humans, not machines, to gather "street intelligence" that the United States lacks in areas such as the Middle East.
Some fear his concern over learning the espionage ropes and pacifying Iran-Contra critics will push more urgent tasks too far into the future.
"He has no time," said Allan E. Goodman, a senior CIA staff member from 1976 to 1980 and now an associate dean at Georgetown University in Washington. "What needs to be done is a long-term process."
Hopes to Outlast Reagan
Webster clearly hopes to serve in the top intelligence post past the Reagan presidency. If so, some experts say, he has the 15 months left in Reagan's term to prove himself, both to the next President and to his internal constituency.
Otherwise, said one analyst, "the guy may well be perceived as a lame duck, and the career guys may just decide to wait (him) out."
Webster takes the prodding seriously. "I have to accept any criticism of what is humanly possible to do that I haven't done in the four months that I've been on board," he said this month. But since May, he noted, he has visited 10 nations, toured most of the intelligence bureaucracy and spoken around the country.
Webster has given some management tasks in his first months to Robert M. Gates, his deputy and before that Casey's. Among other duties, Gates accompanies Webster to congressional briefings and plays a key role in budget matters.
Meanwhile, Webster is attacking the intelligence community's most pressing problem, its lost credibility and trust:
--Both Webster and congressional leaders have overhauled old rules for reviewing such covert operations as the ill-fated arms shipments to Iran. CIA review panels now include top analysts--scholars of intelligence on regional affairs--who had been excluded. The Senate Intelligence Committee now reviews all covert operations four times annually; staffers review them almost weekly.
Boren also has set up a Senate accounting team to spot-check CIA spending, bypassing agency bookkeepers.
--Webster helped secure an agreement giving lawmakers prompt White House notice of new covert operations, a sore point in the Iran affair. The two congressional intelligence panels, for example, were briefed days before Lebanese terrorist Fawaz Younis was arrested Sept. 13 on a Mediterranean yacht where he had been lured by the FBI. The operation was planned by the CIA's counterterrorism center.
"They've been absolutely candid," Boren said. "We've had every kind of information shoved on us."