One of the most distinguished lawyers in the United States, the Honorable William H. Webster is the perfect embodiment of the maxim “so much can be done with a law degree.” An iconic figure in the U.S. intelligence and national security communities, Judge Webster has the distinction of being the only American to serve as both the FBI director from 1978–1987, and the CIA director from 1987–1991. Prior to that, he served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and on the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. He is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Security Medal, and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, to name just a few of his many awards.
He currently serves as chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Judge Webster is former chair of Milbank’s Litigation Department and is involved in the firm’s international corporate, banking, and administrative law practices and active in the areas of arbitration and mediation. He is also a humble and gracious man. “I hadn’t planned to do anything except be a practicing lawyer,” he says.
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Welcome. You have an extraordinary commitment to public service as this interview will show. What is your view of public service?
I’ve always considered myself a private man in public life. That idea was given to me by the man who became the chairman of the law firm to which I now belong, John McCloy. He said it when he was chairman of the board of Amherst College and then later, high commissioner of Germany. His proposition was that our government needed not only people who thought of government as a career, but who saw opportunities to serve when they were needed and had whatever skills that were thought to be useful at that particular time.
You served in the navy in World War II and also the Korean War. How did those experiences shape your view toward the practice of law and its role in society?
When World War II broke out, I signed up for the navy reserves. I was called up, and while it interrupted my college education for a short time and then again in law school – I was called again for the Korean War – I felt I learned great lessons in leadership, in making judgment decisions, and in trying to do something to further the long-range interest and security of our country.
I hadn’t planned to do anything except be a practicing lawyer. But the positions that I’ve held over the years have required some judgment and skill sets that I learned through my service in the navy. Because of what I’d learned as a naval officer, I had the confidence that I could do these things.
You served as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri from 1960 to ’61. Did this experience help convince you that public service was in your future?
All my life I have believed in participating in public service, not just be a member, but to take advantage of opportunities to assume a leadership role. I’ve benefited from that and I hoped I’ve contributed more because of it.
I had not planned to go into government service, until the opportunity to serve my country and my district as a United States attorney came along. It had great appeal to me. I found it very rewarding, and it improved my other skills as well.
In 1970, you were appointed judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and in ’73, you were elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. What do you enjoy about being a judge?
Justice has been my private passion for most of my life. To be part of the decision-making process in the cases that came before my court as a federal trial judge and then the cases before the Eighth Circuit were rewarding experiences for me. I wasn’t really ready to leave being a judge, but there was a more compelling opportunity responsibility in 1978 that took me to the FBI.
Let’s move onto that time. You were director of the FBI from 1978 to 1987. How would you describe those years? What did you set out to accomplish?
I was persuaded by Attorney General Griffin Bell, who had been a longtime friend and colleague, that there were problems in law enforcement. The FBI had engaged in various activities, such as warrantless searches, that cast a little shadow on one of my favorite organizations. It was and remains one of the organizations that I admire the most.
Before I take on a responsibility, either part-time or full-time, I ask myself two questions: am I needed? Do I have the skills and judgment to do this work? Based on my prior experience as U.S. attorney and federal judge I felt the answer to both of those was yes.
I spent nine years there as director and that gave me time to do a lot of things. One thing about the FBI, they really wanted to carry out responsibilities. They wanted me as director to succeed and they cooperated with me in every way that I could ask for. When I was sworn in, there was so much concern at that time that everyone made a special effort to give the FBI a boost. The president was at the swearing in ceremony, the vice president, the attorney general, the chairmen of both judiciary committees of the House, the chief justice swore me in.
I talked about the responsibility of the FBI to further the law enforcement in a constitutional way. I made a statement at that time that was later copied and inscribed on the walls of the conference center and it was just simply this: “Together, we will do the work that the American people expect of us in the way that the Constitution demands of us.” That became our theme. During those years, there was never a successfully made claim of a violation of a constitutional tort. I was very proud of their performance.
I also understand you’re the only person to serve both as the director of the FBI and the director of the CIA.
President Reagan asked me to take over the CIA. I had just about completed my 10 years at the FBI, which was the statutory limit. The CIA was suffering under charges known as the Iran Contra issues, which had to do with trading arms for hostages. There were other issues, too. We had to reconcile the collection of intelligence and the laws of countries around the world where any form of espionage is illegal.
Some of the folks there had a different view than I did, but my view ultimately and quickly prevailed: while we had to do those things in order to do our job abroad, we were still responsible for faithful observance of the laws of the United States and respect for our constitutional requirements. It was challenging, but we did it, and I’ve been very proud of that.
The world was changing at that time. Things were beginning to happen around the world that required us to produce useful and timely intelligence for the benefit of the policy makers. The CIA is not a policy-making organization. We provided the information and the analysis and the implications of it, but others, the president on down, made policy and had the responsibility for how they used the information. We wanted to give them the best possible intelligence, utilizing modern techniques and technology for the safety and security of the United States.
Technology has changed, increasing the tools available to law enforcement to investigate activity, and for criminals to conceal their communications. How do you view the trade-off between the need of government to perform surveillance and privacy concerns?
We’ve been talking about the Constitution, but I’ll add at the CIA, we had to have respect for the privacy of American citizens. But that privacy is not absolute. It is subject to oversight, according to rules laid down by the Congress and court decisions and so forth. It’s a balancing process that never ends, but it has to be done with that awareness. I remember some of my earlier experiences at the CIA, where there were some people who had done some very daring things, but they were cowboys in their approach. They did not feel they could be hamstrung or limited by what they did in the United States, and some of them, as a result, were indicted and ultimately disciplined for what they did.
It’s a challenge today. The National Security Agency has tremendous issues because of the metadata that they have, from time to time, gathered in order to sift through the haystack and find the needles of important intelligence to protect our country.
In 1991, you went back to private life, joining Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and you served as chair of the Litigation Department. What do you think has been the biggest change in the legal profession over the past two decades?
The advance of technology. We call it e-discovery now – the use of electronics to scour for information in emails by companies and private parties that will form the basis for the ongoing trial and introduction of evidence in litigation. It’s always a race to take advantage of the technology and not be beaten down by capabilities that raise entirely new issues. Right now, we’re going through questions about hacking and cyberspace issues, and while that’s a matter of tremendous concern to the intelligence agencies and to law enforcement agencies, it’s also widely important that practicing lawyers know the ups and downs of those areas and stay on top of them.
In 2006, you were appointed Chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Will you describe this council and its role?
When we began to be concerned about homeland security, the White House originally was working on these issues. It quickly became apparent that more was involved here than could be handled just out of one of the White House’s offices. A decision was made to take 22 federal agencies that had previously not been working together or had been placed in some department of the government through which they had secondary role or given only secondary treatment with budgetary requirements and matters, and to put them in a single new department of government, the Department of Homeland Security.
The Homeland Security Advisory Council was established, and I was designated first as vice chairman and very shortly after that, and for over a decade, chairman. If the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has a question, we look into it. One small example would be the recent concern about foreign fighters who go over to take part in some of those disputes in the Middle East, get inculcated with some of those new and dangerous additives, ISIS, for example, and then return to the United States with assignments to do us no good.
We were asked to explore this issue to see how we could bring that appropriately under control – to monitor it, to prevent it, to take appropriate action when that occurred. That’s just one example and we have a whole series of special task forces that work to improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security as the newest of our government departments.
You have been involved in numerous sensitive public policy commissions and investigative panels. When you’re looking into a sensitive topic, is there a systematic approach that you take?
The FBI has asked me from time to time to look at something like the Fort Hood massacre to analyze their performance: what were the lessons learned, what do we need to do in the future.
I’ve looked into two or three of our more serious defector or traitorous activities by agents with CIA or the FBI to determine what, exactly, we did in response, what we need to do in the future, to do better, how to prevent it.
I was talking the other day to the former head of the Internal Revenue Service who had asked me to look at whether they were being overbearing on taxpayers. The recommendations that we made have been pretty uniformly accepted and followed, and that gives me a good feeling.
At the Homeland Security Department, the secretary has been very good about periodically giving us statistical information about the actions he has taken, with respect to the recommendations that we have made.
We can’t stop learning: what we could have done better or mistakes that should not be repeated, matters of that kind.
If a lawyer is interested in expanding his or her public service role, what leadership qualities should that lawyer set out to develop?
Most lawyers do have a sense of taking leadership roles when they’re asked. You start any leadership role with some preconceived ideas, but you don’t make conclusions. You’re looking to develop facts and see where your study and analysis of a particular problem leads you. Then you make recommendations for the present and the future. Fairness has to play an important role. I think we all have points of view and opinions, but we mustn’t ever let those control how we get to the most objective and informed conclusions that a good investigation can produce.
You have received many, many awards. This is really an unfair question, but is there one that stands out for you?
I would have to say the Presidential Medal of Freedom stands out, because it is the highest civilian award. I feel deeply honored that I was selected for that by President George Herbert Walker Bush.
There were other awards that I’ve been proud to receive, the Lifetime Achievement awards and things of that kind that tell me I’m still of value somewhere as I grow older. I received the American Bar Association medal. Only one of those is given a year, and so it makes me feel good that I was selected. I’m looking at my wall – there’s an award from NASA for helping provide the compensation packages for the families of those who were lost in the Columbia astronauts catastrophe.
You’ve been a counselor to the ABA Standing Committee on Law and Security. What’s the highlight from this experience for you?
I would like to become more active on it because this committee is what the private sector does to keep itself alert and skillful about national security. I think that’s the responsibility of all of us to stay on top of what’s happening. As lawyers we’re bound by rules and decisions and we’re looking for better ways to do things that are consistent with the rule of law.
What has been the value of your involvement with the ABA?
I have enjoyed my service in the American Bar Association and other opportunities to serve. The number of people that contribute their time makes all the difference. There are committees for almost everything that we’ve been talking about today. I was reading the minutes from the Arbitration Law Section, and I was thinking how lucky we are to have the ABA.
What advice would you give the young lawyer, someone just starting out?
Take their legal studies seriously while in law school, and do all the things that are necessary to really invest their time, their knowledge, and their future in becoming good lawyers. Continue that process throughout their legal careers, building on the changes that will be taking place. But save a reasonable amount of time, not only to serve the legal community, but to serve on public assignments in their community and take part in civic activities.
That influence of good lawyering and respect for the rule of law are important in almost every phase of our community life, and good lawyers will enhance their own careers, as well as better serve the American people if they do what I have said.
When I’ve given commencement addresses and things of that kind, I try to impress upon them that this is their chance to serve. Service should be high on their list and every effort should be made to understand and faithfully be examples of the rule of law.
What do you do for fun?
In case you haven’t noticed, being a lawyer is fun and all of the opportunities to do things is fun. I enjoy tennis. I try to play tennis with a group that tries to play three times a week at seven o’clock in the morning throughout the year. I enjoy good music. I enjoy being out and around and being involved in projects. It’s fun to better able to serve your clients and to serve your community and to serve your country. I guess the word you’re hearing me keep saying is participation. Sometimes that necessarily evolves into leadership, but leadership is not the objective as much as it is participation.
Thank you so much! It’s been a real pleasure.