WASHINGTON -- There was a decidedly hollow ring to the complaint of William Sessions that "the principle of an independent FBI" was at stake in the controversy that led -- finally -- to his firing by President Clinton.
What Sessions seemed to overlook in months of intransigence is that the 10-year term for directors of the FBI doesn't mean they are not subject to the direction of the attorney general and president, or that they don't serve at the pleasure of the latter. The 10-year term was intended by Congress to protect the FBI from every political breeze that blows through Washington but, far more importantly, it was designed to make it impossible for another J. Edgar Hoover to emerge.
When Hoover died in 1972, politicians in both parties vowed they would never allow some successor to achieve the institutional stature the famed G-Man had attained -- a position that made it politically difficult and perhaps impossible even to direct Hoover, let alone fire him.
It was an open secret that President John F. Kennedy and many of his allies wanted to replace Hoover a decade before his death but concluded that it could be done with political impunity only in a second term.
Moreover, many political leaders of both parties were reluctant to challenge Hoover in any way because of their fears he might have compiled dossiers about their private lives that could be damaging -- a suspicion well-founded in the light of subsequent disclosures about his propensity for gathering such information on such people as Martin Luther King who didn't fit Hoover's idea of the right sort.
But the Sessions case had nothing to do with either the independence of the agency or its director. There was no great principle involved here. He was fired because the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found that he had raised serious ethical questions by his abuse of the perquisites of his office -- such things as free trips on FBI planes to visit friends and relatives and the use of FBI automobiles in Washington to drive his wife on household errands.
In short, rather than being an issue of principle, it was much closer to an argument over fudging expense accounts.
Unsurprisingly, Sessions and his wife depicted the investigation as a vendetta being carried out by disgruntled old-line FBI officials unhappy with his leadership, and his complaint got some credence from the fact the original tips on the questions about his ethics came from within the agency.
But the evidence delineated by the OPR was substantial enough so that the Bush administration's last attorney general, William P. Barr, endorsed it on his final day in office. And, applying the finishing touches to the Sessions stewardship, Barr's successor, Janet Reno, said the inquiry had found him "deficient in judgment." In short, if this was some witch hunt, it was remarkably bipartisan.
The real question about the Sessions case was why it took so long to bounce him.
He was a Republican judge from San Antonio named to run the FBI by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in 1987 and had no constituency of supporters or admirers either in Congress or the political community at large. As director for more than five years, he was credited with taking steps to make the FBI more open to women and minority groups, but he also developed a reputation for spending too much time gadding about and too little dealing with day-to-day problems of the agency.
Although his problems had been fully explored and exposed before Clinton took office, the White House took a remarkably detached view of the situation. Indeed, the president acted only after Sessions had been so publicly defiant of Reno and then Clinton himself that there was no choice in the matter -- thus giving one more small piece of evidence to those who suspect Clinton is uneasy about confrontation and hesitant in making decisions.
Sessions did not go quietly, continuing to complain in a farewell news conference about "scurrilous attacks on me and my wife of 42 years" leading to his demise. But when he got to the part about the "principle of an independent FBI," he ran out of logic. This was about the abuse of an office, not a principle.