NAMING the highly regarded William Webster as director of central intelligence after the late William J. Casey was stricken last December was a deft move. Judge Webster's 10-year term as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was almost up. With the investigations into the Iran-contra affair under way, and also with the furor raging over the security of the US Embassy in Moscow, the last few months have been no time for the Central Intelligence Agency to be without a director. At first the CIA's No. 2 man, Robert Gates, looked likely to succeed his boss, but then his nomination came into question as revelations began coming out of the Iran-contra inquiries.
And so Judge Webster was named to head the CIA, a nomination which was ultimately endorsed by Congress. He is a known quantity, and will bring to the CIA exactly the sort of integrity and principle that the intelligence community doesn't have a lot of time to spend hunting for right now.
But what about the FBI? This agency, too, needs strong, principled direction, but no nomination has been announced.
A certain paradox is at work here. The director of the FBI needs to be insulated from political pressure; and yet if the post is seen as a political dead end, many attractive candidates will remove themselves from consideration for the job.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh is one who has declined the post, citing personal commitments. He is thought likely to make another run for elective office, possibly for the Senate. Stephen S. Trott, No. 3 man at the Justice Department, had also been prominently mentioned as a possible FBI chief; he now looks to be in line for a federal judgeship instead.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the highly visible United States attorney in Manhattan, who is widely thought to have ambitions for elective office, is another name that has been bandied about. But he has said he's too happy where he is to go to Washington.
In a sense, the Webster years at the FBI have been the first ``normal'' ones since the agency's creation. J. Edgar Hoover, a pioneer in his day, founded the FBI and then ran it for decades; it's hard to think of any agency in Washington that bears so distinctive an imprint from one man. Then came a muddled interregnum when the agency got caught up in some of the more dubious doings of the Nixon White House.
Today's FBI - Judge Webster's FBI - is a more open, egalitarian organization, open to women and to minorities as it was not before. There will always be political questions hovering around the agency, because law enforcement has its political aspects.
The search for a new director must continue with all deliberate speed - and so must the quest for balance at the FBI: the appropriate level of insulation from political pressure, but not total estrangement from the American political process.