"It is because I believe in the principle of an independent FBI that I have refused to voluntarily resign," he said. "I will speak out in the strongest terms about protecting it from being manipulated and politicized both from the inside and out."
Sessions made no reference to negotiations that he and his lawyers conducted with Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann, in which Sessions indicated a willingness to resign if he were allowed to remain in office until Senate confirmation of a successor. The Administration rejected this condition, which would have blocked Clarke from taking temporary command of the agency.
One source familiar with the negotiations said that, when it became clear the Administration would not withdraw or significantly question the scathing ethics report, Sessions ruled out the option of "falling on his sword" by resigning because he thought it would be viewed as validation of the report's conclusions.
Sessions said that he had turned aside "strong counsel from a number of people" that resigning would have been the "painless and easy" answer to his troubles. But he said: "I felt I had an absolute obligation under my oath to be true to the bureau."
The most critical reaction on Capitol Hill came from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who supported the reasons given by Sessions for refusing to resign. Dole called his dismissal "a potentially worrisome precedent" that "should concern every American who values the political independence of our nation's top law enforcement agencies."
He said that Sessions "may have shown some poor judgment along the way." However, "the independence of the FBI suffers when its director can be removed simply by alleging 'deficiency in judgment,' " Dole said.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), who heads a House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the FBI and who supported Sessions' move toward opening agent ranks to more blacks, women and other minorities, said that the FBI "is a much better organization today because of him."
Edwards, a former FBI agent, called on the President "to appoint a successor who is independent and committed to civil liberties and who will continue the direction charted by Sessions."
Clinton took note of Sessions' efforts to open up the bureau to more women, blacks and Latinos, saying "that will be remembered as the best thing about his tenure."
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, agreed that Sessions should be credited for creating more opportunities for women and minorities in the agency.
"But because of the ethics controversy swirling around him, he has lost rank-and-file support and therefore his leadership effectiveness has been severely compromised," Schumer said.
Sessions was the first FBI director to be fired by a President. However, in 1973, acting Director L. Patrick Gray III, President Richard Nixon's choice to succeed J. Edgar Hoover, quit in disgrace after admitting that he burned Watergate-related evidence in his fireplace.
A Variety of Ethical Charges
A Justice Department report accuses FBI Director William Sessions of ethical abuses, including:
* Employing a "sham" to avoid paying taxes on transport to and from work in an armored limousine. Sessions put an unloaded gun that he is not trained to handle in a briefcase in the trunk to claim a law enforcement exemption.
* Chauffeuring family members on FBI planes and cars and taking trips at taxpayer expense for personal reasons that had only limited bureau involvement.
* Installing a $10,000 taxpayer-provided fence at his home that does not meet security needs. Sessions and his wife, Alice, rejected an FBI-approved fence that would have cost more than $90,000.
* Declining to release documents so Justice Department officials could investigate whether he received a sweetheart deal on his home mortgage. After the critical report was issued, Sessions signed the releases and the investigation continued. Subsequent findings and documents were sent to the White House.
\o7 Source: Times wire reports\f7