William S. Sessions, a director of the FBI under three presidents, from 1987-93, who challenged racial and gender bias in his agency but struggled to redefine its mission in a time of domestic turmoil, and who was fired after being accused of ethical lapses, died Friday in San Antonio. He was 90.
His daughter Sara Sessions Naughton confirmed the death, at the home of one of Sessions’ sons. The elder Sessions had lived in San Antonio as well.
Sessions arrived in Washington as a figure of stern probity, a Republican hailed by Democrats and Republicans as a scrupulously fair federal judge from West Texas. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan, he sailed through Senate confirmation, 90-0, for what was supposed to be a 10-year term at the helm of 10,000 agents, 56 field offices and the traditions of a storied Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But in a tenure crowded with troubles and stumbling responses, Sessions presided for less than six years over an agency that mounted much-criticized deadly sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas; tried to enlist American librarians to catch Soviet spies; and was forced to concede that agents in the past had overzealously spied on Americans protesting government policies in Central America.
Sessions was applauded for broadening the FBI ranks to include more black, Hispanic and female agents. Facing complaints and lawsuits alleging bias in an agency that had long been overwhelmingly male and white, he acknowledged serious problems and ordered reforms in its affirmative action programs. He streamlined procedures for bias complaints, reached settlements with black and Hispanic agents, and was credited with hiring and promoting scores of women and members of minority groups.
“The FBI is a proud organization,” he told a congressional hearing in 1989. “It has sometimes been difficult for us to recognize that there is the potential for injustice in our own ranks.”
Sessions had to face further accusations that FBI agents under his predecessor, William H. Webster, had violated the rights of groups opposed to administration policies in El Salvador. Civil liberties lawyers produced evidence that agents had infiltrated protest groups, photographed peace rallies and compiled dossiers on thousands of dissidents.
At first Sessions defended the surveillance, saying that it had not been politically motivated and that it had been halted after it found no evidence that terrorists had been aided. But after further inquiry he conceded that spying on opposition groups, like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, from 1983-85 had been too broad. He disciplined six FBI supervisors and ordered that the files on dissidents be purged.
In another concession, Sessions in 1988 curtailed a program that encouraged librarians to report people whose reading materials might suggest that they were Soviet spies. After outcries from Congress and library associations, he ordered that the initiative be made strictly voluntary and that it be confined to the New York area.
The first of the sieges under his watch occurred in 1992, when for 11 days the FBI’s hostage rescue team surrounded a fugitive white separatist and others holed up in an isolated cabin on Ruby Ridge, near the Canadian border. After a US marshal and the fugitive’s wife and son were killed by gunfire, a public furor arose questioning that use of deadly force. Sessions was not directly involved in the episode or accused of any wrongdoing, but the FBI’s reputation was tarnished.
His agency again faced heavy criticism in 1993 over another violent standoff. This one began when four agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and six members of a cult called the Branch Davidians were killed in a gunbattle at their compound near Waco, Texas. After a 51-day FBI siege, President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, fearing mass suicide, authorized a tear-gas assault on April 19. The compound caught fire. At least 75 people died, including many children.