As in his nine previous years at the head of the FBI, William Webster, retiring after four years as head of the CIA, took over a troubled institution, brought in a full measure of probity and steadiness and largely restored public and congressional confidence in a sensitive agency where the demands of government and individual liberty easily collide. Considering the history and the pitfalls, it is no small achievement to have run these two demanding agencies and to have emerged with reputation not simply intact but strengthened.
Judge Webster served at CIA in daunting conditions. He was the second choice of the appointing president, Ronald Reagan, and he soon would be working for a president, George Bush, who as himself a former director of central intelligence and who had at his elbow in the White House Robert Gates, a CIA veteran who had been Mr. Reagan's first choice for the job. But after the freewheeling William Casey, whom Judge Webster succeeded, the evident White House priority was to remove the CIA from public controversy and to focus it on its appropriate tasks. Mr. Bush, inheriting Judge Webster at CIA, kept him on--and by all accounts kept him clear of policy entanglements. There was plenty of the usual complaint about the quality of intelligence and blaming of the CIA for administration failures, the inevitable self-justifying leaks and counterleaks. An outsider, cannot know who was right in these half-hidden disputes that mark every administration. But the consensus, even among those who would have preferred a more aggressive director or who faulted him on this ground and that, was that he did an exceptionally straightforward, conscientious, honest job.
If these are not scandalous or turbulent times at the CIA, however, they have their own particular demands. The world is changing, and there is a heavy requirement on the CIA to provide timely, relevant and quality advice to American policy makers in post-Cold War circumstances where new forces, regions and players demand tough scrutiny. In addition, some legislators are now intent on getting Congress deeper into matters of the CIA's budget and policies in the future. The next director's job is going to be an especially difficult one. And the challenges will be very different from those that Judge Webster faced when he came to office.
William Webster resigned yesterday, an unofficial casualty of the Persian Gulf war.
After the derring-do and double-talk of William Casey, Mr. Webster's discretion and candor as Director of Central Intelligence were a refreshing change. He reined in lawless covert operations and rebuilt trust on Capitol Hill. President Bush could use a successor with Mr. Webster's probity and judiciousness.
He pleased Congress, and annoyed the White House, by his willingness to give timely notice on covert operations and his refusal to shape his intelligence reports to the Administration's political needs. At the same time he was roundly if not always justly criticized for notable intelligence failures, including belated assessments of the Soviet economic collapse and Saddam Hussein's designs on Kuwait. Still, the C.I.A. did far better than others in anticipating developments.
Despite pressure to name his own man, Mr. Bush kept Mr. Webster on. The Director survived intermittent White House sniping until the gulf war eroded his support at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. He irritated the White House when, faithfully reflecting the intelligence community's assessment, he argued that economic sanctions were working. But just before Congress voted on the war he reversed himself, thus looking like a White House pawn and damaging his credibility in Congress.
Mr. Bush's hint that he might appoint Robert Gates, his deputy national security adviser, to head the C.I.A. alarms anyone familiar with the long battle for an accountable intelligence agency and unvarnished intelligence assessments. Ronald Reagan proposed Mr. Gates for the post four years ago but was forced to withdraw the nomination by a Senate troubled by Mr. Gates's evasive testimony about the Iran-contra scandal.
It was then that Mr. Reagan turned to Mr. Webster, who had already built a commendable record as F.B.I. Director, curbing agency abuses while effectively combating domestic racketeering and terrorism.
In choosing a replacement, President Bush would do well to keep Mr. Webster's qualifications in mind. Until the gulf war, he earned widespread respect by combining an outsider's perspective with an insider's know-how.