Sessions: Did He Fall or Was He Pushed?

July 25, 1993|By DAN FREEDMAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Five-and-a-half years after taking command of the FBI as a "West Texas tough guy," a federal judge with an impeccable reputation, William Sessions is leaving the bureau in disgrace.

That much is clear. But his critics and supporters disagree on the factors that led President Clinton to fire him Monday.

"He failed because he didn't understand the ways of Washington," said one congressional source, a supporter of Mr. Sessions who asked not to be identified. "There's a way to change the FBI without alienating the senior management, but he never discovered what it was."

To the Sessions camp, the director is the victim of a cabal of career FBI agents and Justice Department political appointees who resented his independent streak. They say he got into trouble because was unwilling to kowtow to his ex-boss, former Attorney General William Barr, or to break the powerlock held by the bureau's No. 2 official, Floyd Clarke, whom they accuse of trying to circumvent Mr. Sessions' efforts at reform.

But to his detractors, Mr. Sessions' feuds with the two men showed he simply could not deal effectively with them or command their respect.

They add that Mr. Clarke, now acting director, was loyal to Mr. Sessions and even defended the director at an FBI convention a few years ago where senior agents booed and hissed at the very mention of his name.

To the anti-Sessions camp, he bears the blame for his own downfall. Attorney General Janet Reno said Monday that he had "exhibited a serious deficiency in judgment," and "he does not command the respect and confidence needed to lead the

bureau."

Supporters and detractors also differ over Mr. Sessions' management style.

Some agree with a characterization several years ago in Parade Magazine that he was "forthright and decisive." They cite his reaction to a 1988 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that the bureau had discriminated against Hispanic agents. Senior agents urged Mr. Sessions to appeal the decision, but he refused. Instead, he instituted an extensive affirmative action program.

His backers note that Mr. Sessions immersed himself in details of programs that interested him. They cite his push for the bureau to start a DNA testing program capable of linking traces of bodily fluids discovered at crime scenes to criminals themselves. Because of Mr. Sessions, the bureau is building a $750 million state-of-the-art fingerprint identification center in West Virginia.

But his detractors say that at other times Mr. Sessions seemed inattentive or disinterested. He interrupted a briefing once by singing a line from a 1960s ad touting a men's hair cream: "a little dab'll do ya." Sometimes, these sources say, he would stop conversations at meetings by turning up CNN when breaking news flashed.

Mr. Sessions proved ill-equipped to fight turf battles against competing law enforcement agencies, officials said. For instance, he failed to block the U.S. Marshals Service from seizing a portion of the bureau's responsibility for catching fugitives, and he failed to stop the Secret Service from investigating the savings and loan industry, once the exclusive domain of the FBI.

The critics also say he failed to understand fully the implications of new telephone technology impervious to FBI wiretapping. As a result, they said, he was ineffective in convincing Congress that the new technology endangered sensitive investigations.

Mr. Sessions also was accused of blindness to possible conflicts of interest. He placed an unloaded gun in the trunk of his chauffeur-driven car when bureau legal advisers told him it would earn him a tax break as a law enforcement officer. He and his wife, Alice, took a large number of official trips on Justice Department planes to San Antonio, his hometown, and San Francisco, where their daughter Sara lives.

He billed the government for a wooden security fence designed more to keep his pets in than provide security, bureau officials said. And he obtained a mortgage on favorable terms from a Washington banker who was a social friend.

All this played into the hands of his enemies, and in January Mr. Barr, who had long disdained Mr. Sessions, released a scathing report accusing him of ethics violations.

Mr. Barr was a Bush administration loyalist who was irked by Mr. Sessions' quiet support of gun control at a time when President Bush opposed it.

Mr. Barr and Mr. Sessions also clashed publicly over the bureau's independence in handling a probe of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, which involved administration efforts to supply weapons technology to Iraq prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Mr. Sessions called the Barr report a politically calculated sneak attack and set about to rebuild his reputation with the incoming Clinton administration.

But his detractors say he did it in a ham-fisted way. While Attorney General Reno did not think the ethics report by itself was enough to doom Mr. Sessions, she grew increasingly irritated with him, in part because he continued to request Justice Department planes for trips to San Antonio and San Francisco.

Also, Ms. Reno was dismayed with his and his wife's increasingly strident attacks on Mr. Clarke and other bureau officials. Ultimately, Ms. Reno decided Mr. Sessions had to go and recommended his dismissal to President Clinton.

"If it had been Sessions vs. Barr, he could have survived," said the congressional source. "But when it became Sessions vs. the world, he didn't have a chance."

Dan Freedman wrote this analysis for the Hearst Newspapers.

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