Charges against the FBI's Sessions

January 26, 1993

Nothing better illustrates the need for President Clinton to install a strong attorney general than the confusing scandal involving the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, William Sessions. On his last day as Bush attorney general, William Barr accused Mr. Sessions of numerous improprieties. He based this on a report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.

The thrust of the report is that Mr. Sessions frequently scheduled activities for personal rather than official reasons. Given the special security considerations of an FBI director, some of the complaints in the OPR's report seem awfully petty. However, cumulatively the charges do suggest at the very least ethical obtuseness of the sort that forced one of his predecessors out of the office in the 1970s. Mr. Sessions knows this history. He should have been more circumspect.

Mr. Sessions says the report is misleading and full of errors. He certainly deserves to be heard. The OPR investigation seemed to some to have been a response to Mr. Sessions' ordering an investigation of improprieties in the Justice Department. Even if that is not true, it appeared that high Justice officials leaked details of the investigation last fall in order to embarrass Mr. Sessions -- if not to deter him. We consider the mere hint of the latter to have serious enough implications to call for an investigation of the whole Sessions affair.

Since 1976, FBI directors have been limited to 10-year terms. This was designed to keep them from becoming as independent as J. Edgar Hoover, who intimidated presidents and held the job for over four decades. Presidents retained the right to get rid of directors at will, but the 10-year term -- longer than two presidential terms -- was a clear congressional signal that the FBI directorship should not be a political plum.

Bill Clinton's attorney general must look into the charges against Mr. Session and into his charges against his accusers. Congress has a responsibility to keep an eye on the Clinton administration's handling of this, watchful for any sign of politics in play in the administration's decision-making.

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