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William Sessions, Air Force veteran and FBI chief fired by Bill Clinton, dies at 90

Former FBI Director William Sessions holds up a copy of the "rules of engagement," that were used in the 1992 incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during Senate hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 22, 1995. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

William Sessions, a U.S. judge from Texas who served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was its first leader ever fired from the post, has died. He was 90.

Sessions died of natural causes on Friday at his home in San Antonio, his daughter, Sara Sessions Naughton, told the Associated Press.

A Republican, Sessions was tapped to lead the agency in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. He replaced William Webster, who stepped down after nearly a decade to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Sessions served through the term of George H.W. Bush. Shortly before President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, allegations of ethical violations by Sessions, including misuse of agency transportation, emerged.

When Clinton requested his resignation, Sessions refused, saying that to do so would compromise the FBI’s independence. His obstinacy prompted Clinton to fire him in July 1993, a bit more than halfway through his 10-year tenure. The only other fired FBI director is James Comey, who was removed from his post by President Donald Trump in May 2017.

Under Sessions, the FBI expedited the adoption of DNA testing as a crime-detection tool and computerized its collection of fingerprints, comprising some 90 million cards at the time he took office.

“Today we can do in a matter of seconds what might have taken weeks, or months, or never,” Sessions said in a 2006 interview with the Houston Chronicle.

He led the FBI during the 1992 confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during which a bureau agent killed an unarmed woman, as well as the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in which about 80 cult members died.

William Steele Sessions was born May 27, 1930, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Will Anderson Sessions, a Protestant minister, and the former Edith Steele, according to Marquis Who’s Who.

He grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and in 1951 enlisted in the Air Force, where he was a captain and radar instructor. While in the service he married Alice June Lewis. Alice Sessions died in 2019, age 88.

A 1956 graduate of Baylor University in Waco, he also received his law degree from the school in 1958. For the next decade, Sessions practiced law in that city. He joined the Department of Justice, first as a prosecutor in Washington and then, in 1971, as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio. President Gerald Ford appointed him to the federal bench in 1974.

Sessions garnered national press coverage in 1982 when he presided over the trials of four individuals charged in the 1979 assassination of his predecessor as chief judge for the Western District of Texas, John H. Wood Jr. Defense lawyers sought to have him removed from the case, but the Supreme Court upheld Sessions’ decision not to recuse himself. All four were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

“Judge Sessions has established himself as a fair-minded, tough prosecutor and one of the finest federal judges on the bench today,” Reagan said in a statement upon his appointment as FBI director in 1987.

Sessions became unpopular within the agency for irresolute leadership, according to a 1993 New York Times article that described him as having a short attention span and being disinterested in bureaucratic details.

In a 1992 report, the Justice Department’s internal ethics unit found that Sessions had abused his office by taking free flights aboard FBI aircraft for personal trips and not reimbursing the agency for his wife’s travel. He billed the government for an unauthorized security fence at his home, the report said, and committed other ethics and tax violations.

After his removal by Clinton, Sessions returned to private law practice in San Antonio and served as chairman of Texas Exile, a state-funded program aimed at reducing gun violence.

An avid outdoorsman, Sessions climbed to Mount Everest’s base camp and trekked in the Himalayas on several occasions.

He had four children: Sara, William, Mark, and Pete, a former 11-term Republican congressman from Texas.


© 2020 Bloomberg News

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