Brighter Prospects at the FBI


Given the messy situation he inherited at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, President Clinton handled the removal of Director William Sessions just about right. He could have botched it, and apparently owes Attorney General Janet Reno much credit for his avoiding doing the wrong thing.

Director Sessions' sins were greatly exaggerated -- ethical lapses involving perks and taxes for the most part, some of which could be justified as security related. But there was a precedent of ousting an FBI director after minor ethical lapses. Mr. Sessions knew better. Even if not, the controversy involving his actions in the bureau and out made it impossible for him to continue to lead the FBI with a firm and respected hand.

The FBI is the most dangerous agency of government. The potential for abuse is enormous. Neither a director nor a president should ever be allowed to use the bureau for political purposes. The best way to guard against this is to limit a director's tenure and limit firings to good cause -- and to keep presidential associates or cronies out of the job.

Faced with the clamor for replacing Mr. Sessions, Mr. Clinton indicated he might do so with a friend from college days. But Ms. Reno came to his rescue. After reviewing the case she used her considerable reputation for rectitude to remove the "friend of Bill's" from the list of replacements.

The presidential choice to replace Mr. Sessions, U.S. District Judge Louis Freeh, appears to be a good one. He began his career as an FBI agent. He was a Reagan appointee to the U.S. attorney's office in New York City, where he made a name for himself as a crime-buster. He was a Bush appointee to the bench.

Judge Freeh said in his remarks at the White House yesterday that his "total commitment" is to "protecting all of our people from crime and violence." He inherits an FBI that is demoralized and, in the eyes of some knowledgeable observers, still suspect as to its understanding of the new criminal environment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee just last year probed Judge Freeh's background before confirming him to his judgeship. It should not take the panel long to decide on his fitness now. The sooner a director is confirmed and in charge, the sooner the FBI can get back to normal.

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