Webster had a strong sense of what he wanted his career to be from a very young age. “I had intended to be a lawyer from the time I was old enough to say the word,” he said. His years at the College reinforced his determination and provided “a wonderful opportunity to study history, political science and English. I had great professors who had a firm idea of what would be best for me to go into my line of work.”
After leaving the College, Webster attended Washington University at St. Louis and began to practice law there upon his graduation in 1949. In 1960, he was appointed the U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Missouri by President Dwight Eisenhower. He served in that position for two years, then he returned to his law firm. He continued to practice law until 1970 when he was nominated by President Richard Nixon to be U.S. district judge for the eighth circuit. He served in that position until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter named him director of the FBI. Nine years later, President Ronald Reagan named him director of the CIA, where he served until the end of the Persian Gulf War.
Since graduating from Amherst, Webster has continued to work with fellow alumni in various Washington, D.C. roles. “Over the years it has been a real pleasure for me to work here and work with other Amherst grads. We’re all very proud of the little college on the hill,” he said.
Our man in Washington
Webster called his experience travelling to over 75 countries the most memorable aspect of his tenure at the FBI and CIA. “[I participated] in a lot of intelligence work in countries other than the U.S.,” he said. “One of the most moving experiences was to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in Germany about three weeks before it happened and I met with the chief of the German intelligence organization and we discussed the possibility of the union of the two Germanys. It came down so swiftly, and it was a fascinating thing to see,” he said.
“I had stood on the Wall and visited areas where the Soviet Union had put up barbed wire and had dogs to prevent people from leaving. I have a piece of the Berlin Wall on my desk which has two dates on it, 1961-1989, those are the years that the Berlin Wall was up,” he said. “Nineteen sixty-one is the year my first daughter was born, and 1989 is the year her daughter was born. This is very symbolic to me because it represents an entire generation living under Communism.”
“Other memorable events for me were the invasion of Panama and visits to China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he added.
Webster looks back on his years as director of both the FBI and the CIA fondly and holds a great deal of respect for those with whom he worked. “The unique thing about the FBI and the CIA is that they’re comprised of men and women who aren’t interested in fame and wealth,” Webster said. “They are committed to doing work that will help produce a safer and better world. They are gifted, talented and smart, and those are great strengths of these organizations,” he said.
“There are many of us who don’t think of ourselves as just having a job, but rather of being available to come and help when we are needed, and then we return to our private lives,” he said. “I think we got that from Amherst and I hope that people that come through there are willing to step up if they are called on.”
Securing the homefront
Webster is currently putting his experience and expertise to work as vice-chairman of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. “The President formed the advisory council to work with Governor Tom Ridge. We have been working with him and the President for strategy on terrorism and protecting homeland security,” he said.
The Council is the prototype for the Department of Homeland Security, which Bush has proposed to Congress to become a permanent Cabinet-level department. “People in Congress have some different ideas and we are down to one issue and that is, to what extent the President will have the flexibility in dealing with personnel in the department,” he explained.
Webster made it clear that terrorism has been a concern of American intelligence agencies for quite some time. “When I came to the FBI in 1978, we were experiencing about 100 terrorist incidents a year. These were acts of violence committed against innocent victims or property for political or ideological reasons,” he said.
Webster stressed that these events were not as serious as some affecting the United States presently. “People were killed, but not in the numbers we have been experiencing most recently,” he said. “None of these events, though, was truly international. In the past we had to deal with terrorist attacks against the U.S. abroad, but not here.”
As director of the FBI in 1980, Webster made terrorism one of the highest priorities of the FBI. “[We wanted to be ready enough] that we could get there before the bomb went off rather than afterwards. The occurrence of these huge terrorist events here on American soil have made the public view the problem in a far more serious light, and I think they were coming around to that with the bombing of [the federal building in Oklahoma City,]” he said.
Webster was confident in the capabilities and work of the FBI and CIA in assuring safety for the American people since Sept. 11. “Now the American people have seen several thousands killed and they’re deeply concerned with the level of security and intelligence. I have traveled on 83 air planes since Sept. 11, and I have seen a lot of airports that have been made much safer,” he said.
While a large-scale terrorist attack had never occurred on American soil until Sept. 11, the intelligence community knew that such an attack was inevitable. “We anticipated this sort of thing, but it had always been easier to attack American targets somewhere else. What we didn’t know was at what point in time they would be able to plan something on American soil. I think the intelligence community recognized that it was only a matter of time before they would.”
Now that terrorism has become a homefront concern, Webster praises the collaboration between the two agencies he once directed. “For many years, Congress felt that it was best for the CIA to operate outside the U.S., and the FBI to work inside the U.S., for reasons that they did not want them working together. Now they must cooperate as much as possible and share information and improve their computer data basis, this is all very important for the future,” he said.
Because of his position in the advisory council on homeland security and because of his role as director of the CIA during the Persian Gulf War, Webster has an insider’s view on the debate as to whether the United States should go to war with Iraq. “Clearly, [Hussein] has been working hard through the years to develop [nuclear] capabilities. At the time of Desert Storm, we bombed out some of his most advanced weapon utilities.”
He is cautious, however, that the advances made in Desert Storm have left the international community complacent. “We know he used weapons on his people and on the people of Iran. I do not know his full capacity, but I have a pretty good idea of what his intentions are, and if he is not slowed down in the future, chances are he will use those weapons,” Webster said. “We have to stand firm to protect our homeland and preserve the values that have always been important to Americans.”