President Bush, saying, "I hate to see him go," announced the resignation of CIA Director William Webster on Wednesday.
In a surprise announcement made at a hastily called news conference, Bush, who had just returned from Bethesda Naval Hospital, said Webster had told him of his decision to leave the CIA post "several days ago.""I hate to see him go," Bush said, with Webster standing at his side. "It was his choice."
Turning to Webster, Bush said, "Director, we're going to miss you, pal."
Webster said he had "many mixed feelings. There's never an easy time to go, especially when you are working for an organization you believe in." Bush said, "Bill will be leaving federal service after 26 years on the federal bench, as director of the FBI and as director of the CIA and as a former DCIA. I know the complex organizations and interrelationships that comprise our intelligence community. Bill has brought an integrity, an effectiveness and an insight to the many intelligence-gathering operations of this nation. He has done a superb job."
Webster told Bush, "I think I'm leaving you, I know I'm leaving you, a healthy organization, one that has had in the past four years a good track record for its accountability, so far as it is possible to be accountable."
As for his leaving Webster said, "My commission says to serve at the pleasure of the president for the time being. This has been a four-year time being that I've been very proud of. But it seemed to me that this was a good window. You hate to leave, but something tells you it's a good time to leave. I still have my roots in the wall and this gives me an opportunity to pursue other avenues in the private sector."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sat for years on the Senate Intelligence Committee - which oversees the CIA - said, "Judge Webster has been both a terrific (former) director of the FBI and a very needed director of the CIA.
"Judge Webster came to the CIA when that organization was under intense criticism. He helped to alleviate that criticism, strengthened and brought about a beneficial balance to the CIA."
Asked if he had a successor, Bush said, "We haven't talked successor, haven't gotten anyone in mind. But it did come as a surprise when Bill brought this up to me. He told me this several days ago. It was his decision."
Webster, 67, spent nine years as FBI director before being tapped by President Reagan in 1987 to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
A former federal judge, Webster was asked to take over the FBI in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who saw in the Republican a man capable of rebuilding a reputation dragged down by disclosures that the bureau had spied on citizens and had broken illegally into the homes of Vietnam War protesters.
Reagan sought those same qualities when he asked Webster to shift to the CIA, which was wallowing in the muck of the Iran-Contra scandal and the questions left unanswered because of the grave illness of Director William Casey, one of the men at the center of the president's worst crisis.
Casey resigned in February 1987 and died three months later, just two weeks before Webster was approved for the job by the Senate. Webster had not been Reagan's first choice, but Casey's deputy, Robert Gates, who had served as acting director in the interim, withdrew his nomination in early March after senators raised questions about his own role in the foreign-policy scandal.
Webster pledged during his Senate confirmation hearing that as director of intelligence he would inform Congress of covert operations "in the timeliest way possible," something Casey rarely saw fit to do.
Webster briefly came under scrutiny for failing to reveal an FBI memo that raised early questions about Oliver North, the fired White House aide who engineered the secret 1985 and 1986 U.S. arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
In the end, however, senators were satisfied with Webster's position and pointed to his record of service in approving him as the nation's top spy.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a Brookings Institution scholar and authority on intelligence, said, "It has been a pretty calm tenure for the CIA director, and I think it has to do with his temperament and his standing."
Sonnenfeldt said Webster appeared to have cultivated good relations with members of Congress and "wasn't considered as political" as his predecessor, the late William J. Casey.
"He isn't a political activist and he sort of exudes a certain serenity," said Sonnenfeldt, who has served in the State Department in both Republican and Democratic administrations.