It's not FBI Director William Webster's style to boast. But he was prodded by the question, ''Aren't you really outgunned by organized crime?'' He responded by rolling off some figures that J. Edgar Hoover would have been proud to cite.
He said ''16 to 19 percent of our resources go into fighting organized crime, '' adding that in 1981, FBI efforts in that area resulted in 515 convictions. During the first nine months of 1982 there have been 587 convictions in organized-cime cases.
Of these convictions, he said, 82 in 1981 and 218 in 1982 were ''syndicate members.'' Further, he said, 245 organized-crime cases await prosecution.
''We are giving organized crime a very high priority,'' he said. ''We are taking it very seriously.''
''How does this compare with the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover?'' Mr. Webster was asked. The genial FBI head smiled. Ever since he took the reins of the investigative organization, he's been pushed to compare himself with his predecessor. But he won't play that game.
''The FBI responds to what's out there today,'' he said, adding that Mr. Hoover was doing the same in his day. But, he conceded in reference to the number of convictions he was citing, ''We haven't seen this kind of activity in a long time. We're going after the syndicates.''
''But,'' a reporter asked, ''isn't your low-key approach done deliberately as a contrast with Hoover?'' Again, Webster quietly rejected the bait.
He pointed out that the periods were different, that 20 to 25 years ago the FBI's official view was that there was no such organization as the Mafia.
''Today,'' he said, ''it is much more sophisticated in terms of crime fighting. . . . We now have 29 or 30 FBI installations in major organized-crime areas . . . and there are changes in the way reporters write about crime. . . . We've learned a lot since then.''
Then he added, ''I don't want to compare. The real question is: Is today's FBI relevant to today's problems? Let it speak for itself.''
Judge Webster also used the occasion to defend the methods used by the FBI in bringing about the Abscam convictions. He said the FBI would continue ''to use undercover when no other reasonable way is available. . . . We will always use cooperative witnesses.''
''We looked into the entrapment issue,'' he said, before the FBI launched Abscam. ''And none of the cases have been set aside as entrapment. In fact, there has been a shift away from the issue of entrapment to the due-process defense.''
Of Mel Weinberg, the cooperative witness in Abscam, Webster said: ''I never said he was lovable. I simply said he was effective.''
He was asked how many FBI probes into corruption of government officials there are.
''There were about 1,200 when I first reported on this activity a couple of years ago,'' he said. ''There are even more now.''
On other topics the FBI director had this to say:
Any significance of the Israeli action in Lebanon on terrorism?
The question is to what extent there will be terrorist reprisals against Israel and Israeli supporters in other parts of the world. We are watching this very carefully, particularly the splinter factions within the PLO umbrella.
In your investigation of (Raymond J.) Donovan, prior to his appointment as secretary of labor, did you make any mistake in giving him a clean bill of health?
It is not our function to give a clean bill. The process is that the White House asks about a nominee, what we have on hand, to see if they want to nominate the person. We did what we always had done. We made some housekeeping errors - and we have made some shifts in personnel to improve the process in the future, to open up minds to new approaches.
Do you always report to the White House?
That is the historic practice. The White House is our client - and the White House then supplies the information to the Senate.
Is the Donovan case now closed?
I have no contact with the White House on this.