Former CIA and FBI Director Calls for Renewed Trust in Beleaguered Intelligence Agencies

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Mar 15, 2018
by Sarah Sexton
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Former CIA and FBI Director Calls for Renewed Trust in Beleaguered Intelligence Agencies

William H. Webster defends intelligence agencies under fire from President Trump and calls on law students to help rebuild public trust   

“Help restore trust.” 

According to the former CIA and FBI director, William H. Webster, this was the “most important thing” the audience of law students could do, “with the kind of training, education, and exposure you’re getting… to make a serious contribution to [your] country.”

Webster, the first and only person to have served as director of both the CIA and the FBI, posed this challenge during the sixth annual Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program, which gathered 54 law students from the US’ top law schools last month in Washington, DC to explore how they could apply their legal training to careers in public service. 

His challenge to this cadre of future top lawyers and public servants comes at a time of growing mistrust in America – mistrust of the mainstream media, mistrust of government, and mistrust of the intelligence services. The latter has surprisingly been led primarily by the country’s own president, Donald J. Trump.

Now 94 years old but still chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, Webster reflected on his long career in public service – from his military service during World War Two, to his appointments as a Federal District Court and then US Appeals Court judge, to his work with the FBI and later CIA – commenting on the rising tension between the White House and the US intelligence community. 

In the wake of attacks on the FBI for missing a tipster’s warning on the suspect who carried out the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which saw the deaths of 14 students and three teachers, Webster came to the FBI’s defense, stating, “This is one of the really great organizations of our country, and it attracts some of the ablest, most dedicated Americans that you could want to know or work with.” 

“Now, they’ll make mistakes; they’re not infallible,” Webster continued, acknowledging the missed Parkland tip as one such error that exposed a need for improvement. “But we cannot afford to undermine the credibility and trustworthiness of the FBI as long as they continue to earn that trust.” 

Webster recalled the day in February 1978 when he was sworn in as FBI Director, inheriting an agency tarnished by a variety of Watergate-era abuses, including illegal break-ins called “black-bag jobs.” Standing before President Jimmy Carter and US Attorney General Griffin Bell at his swearing-in ceremony, Webster knew he needed to address the need for change. 

As he closed his remarks at the ceremony, Webster said, “Together, we’re going to do the work that the American people expect of us in the way that the constitution demands of us.” 

To Webster’s surprise, his words would later be engraved on a bronze medallion that now adorns the entrance to a conference room at FBI headquarters.  This, Webster said, reflects the bureau’s ongoing commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities with integrity. 

As a former federal judge, Webster came to the FBI with built-in credibility, and he preferred that his agents refer to him as “judge” rather than “director,” in part to convey his independence and probity. Webster also brought in assistants with law degrees to help evaluate proposals and to ensure that bureau initiatives conformed to statutes and guidelines. 

Webster carried this practice over to the CIA after his appointment as director of central intelligence. One such assistant was John Bellinger III, then a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, who joined Webster as his special assistant in 1988, supporting the judge as he led the US intelligence community through the end of the Cold War, the invasion of Panama, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the Persian Gulf War. 

Bellinger went on to serve as a legal advisor to both the US Department of State and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Speaking at the same event, Bellinger also shared his experiences with the students.  

“I remember vividly as a 28-year-old going with [Webster] to Europe after the end of the Cold War,” Bellinger recalled. “Sitting in the back rooms with the intelligence chiefs in Germany and in Britain to talk through what the future of Europe would be after that period in time – it was for me, as a young special assistant, an extraordinary period. I learned a lot from you.” 

Bellinger urged the students hailing from law schools at several of America’s top universities – Columbia University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, New York University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Stanford University, and Yale University – to consider working as special assistants to political appointees throughout the government. 

“I had two special assistants when I was legal adviser,” Bellinger said, “and this is an extraordinary way as a young person to watch a successful leader do their job and to help that person.” 

Bellinger and Webster now both serve on the advisory board of the Lloyd N. Cutler Center for the Rule of Law, established by Salzburg Global Seminar in memory of the Washington “superlawyer” who served as White House Counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton. Lloyd Cutler also served as chair of Salzburg Global’s Board of Directors for a decade and advocated passionately for mentoring young leaders – both from the US and across the globe – who displayed a commitment to shaping a better world through the rule of law.

Since its founding in 2012, the Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program has carried forward Cutler’s leadership in both public and private practice of law and continues to empower rising legal professionals from around the world. This year’s Salzburg Cutler Fellows represented 23 countries, including Argentina, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Pakistan and the United States. 

“It’s been my privilege to be part of the Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program,” said Bellinger, who also attended the 2016 event and later delivered the annual Cutler Lecture. “It’s an extraordinary way to both recognize Lloyd Cutler, who was my senior partner when I was a young associate at Wilmer Cutler, and to help shape the careers of a rising generation of international lawyers committed to public service.” 

Recognizing that, as aspiring public servants, this new generation of international lawyers might someday work in agencies charged with sensitive responsibilities, often operating under secret or classified conditions, Webster closed by further underscoring the importance of gaining and maintaining trust. 

“[These agencies] have to rely on your integrity – or what they perceive as your integrity – and you have to be worthy of that trust.”  


The Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program is held under the auspices of the Lloyd N. Cutler Center for the Rule of Law. The annual program collaborates with 11 of the leading US law schools. This year's session was sponsored by NYU Washington and Arnold & Porter.