In a little-noticed ceremony in New York the other day, William H. Webster, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was awarded a medal in recognition of the improvements he has made in the professional attitude and morale of the FBI. i
The award was made by the Riot Relief Fund, a century-old New York institution with a membership that includes many prominent jurists and other leaders of the bar. It was a welcome sign that Webster, a former federal judge himself, is finally beginning to get the belated appreciation that is due him for the low-keyed, but effective way he has gone about restoring public confidence in the FBI.
While the job may not be completed, even the harshest of critics would concede that Webster has already done much to rescue the bureau from the disrepute that attended its last years under J. Edgar Hoover and his immediate successor, L. Patrick Gray.
Unlike Hoover, Webster apparently is not consumed by a passion for personal publicity and political leverage. Instead, he has quietly concentrated on cleaning house, reorganizing the hierarchy and decentralizing the one-man, tyrannical rule that prevailed under Hoover.
Above all, perhaps, he has instilled in the bureau a new respect for the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, with its protection of individuals against government encroachments. This is most reassuring at a time when civil rights and civil liberties are encountering renewed hostility in the United States.
On Capitol Hill, a new subcommittee on terrorism and security has been established under the chairmanship of newly elected Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), a protege of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). On the House side, there is talk of reviving something akin to the old Red-baiting Un-American Activities Committee.
Those who fear a new assault on political and ideological dissenters were not comforted when President Reagan's counselor, Edwin Meese, recently referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as, in effect, a "criminals' lobby." Nor did the president help matters by refusing to rule out surreptitious entries ("black bag jobs") in future national security cases.
Under current rules, established by President Carter in 1978 and faithfully adhered to by Webster, such black bag jobs could be undertaken against a U.S. citizen only if the president approved the procedure and only if the attorney general determined there was probable cause to believe the target to be an agent of a foreign power. It is not yet clear what specific standards Reagan has in mind.
In civil liberties circles, concern about this was compounded by Reagan's recent pardon of two former high-ranking officials of the FBI, who were found guilty last year of authorizing illegal searches of private homes. Despite their conviction by a jury, Reagan insisted the defendants had not acted with "criminal intent." Officials of the ACLU wrote to the president, saying that they feared his action would be taken by the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies as a signal that they should feel free to violate constitutional rights whenever they believed that the national security is threatened."
As long as Webster remains as head of the FBI, however, that is not likely to happen. Webster is in the fourth year of a 10-year appointment, but he serves at the pleasure of the president. So far, there has been no talk of supplanting him.
The influence of a forthright FBI chief is hard to overestimate, as Denton discovered a couple of weeks ago. He set out to dramatize alleged terrorism in the United States, but was promptly deflated when Webster was asked about this. The FBI director calmly said, "There is no real evidence of Soviet-sponsored terrorism within the U.S."
Moreover, he added, guidelines restraining political surveillance and intrusive investigative techniques were not hampering the FBI. I fact, he said, there would be "a storm of protest within the bureau" if the guidelines were abolished.
Nevertheless, Joel Lisker, chief counsel of Denton's committee, has said he favors changes that will give the FBI more leeway to investigate various groups. Hence, it is hardly surprising that there is some suspense over what changes, if any, Reagan finally decides on.
Fortunately, Webster has enjoyed the support of all the attorneys general he has served under. Indeed, Griffin Bell, Carter's first Justice Department chief, said Webster might be "the best appointment President Carter ever made." That may be a little extravagant, but he is surely the best FBI director the country has had in a long time.