An illustration of a phone with eyes and numbered balls bouncing beneath it

When I was a kid, I gulped down the old We Were There series of children’s history books. The premise ran that the young protagonists were there at all sorts of dramatic times and places, such as At the Opening of the Erie Canal, to quote one title, or at the Boston Tea Party, or with Byrd at the South Pole. Later, I read my own kids the doggedly formulaic Magic Tree House books, in which two siblings get windswept back in time, too. Such luck: they meet everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Clara Barton to Houdini.

As I reported this piece on William H. Webster ’45, I kept thinking of both of these series—for of all the people I’ve met, he’s the one who was there the most. You can see why this might be: he holds the status of being the only person in history to become director of both the FBI and the CIA, and he’s played a role in public life on and off for six decades. In concrete terms, for example, he was there at John Hinckley Jr.’s arraignment in the shooting of President Reagan. He was there, secretly listening in, when FBI agents set up the Abscam sting to catch crooked politicians. In more general terms, he was there examining and testifying about all the intelligence gathered as the Cold War ended and the Gulf War started.

But this there-ness doesn’t stop there. He keeps cropping up at other, unexpected moments, if not at the center of history, then just off to the side, from the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, to the L.A. riots after the police beating of Rodney King, to our post-9/11 world as chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Meanwhile, his story runs into many notables from recent history: the three presidents he served under (Carter, Reagan and the first Bush), Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin and lots more.

Webster, now 98, and his wife, Lynda, sat for three Zoom interviews for this article, and I also dug up my own intelligence, from original interviews, news accounts, oral histories, books and commission reports. What follows is a zigzagging collection of short narratives. But where Webster was, what he saw and what he did could—no doubt—fill a book series all its own.

2014. Webster is the target of a phone scam. Someone calls his house in Washington, D.C., and says Webster has won the Mega Millions lottery and a Mercedes-Benz—but he needs to send $50,000 to cover the taxes on the prize. Stay tuned: The scammer has no idea who he’s up against.

1924. Webster is born, coincidentally, in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.

A serious looking man in a suit

Webster in 1983, in a photo by the official White House photographer. Photo: Michael Evans/Reagan Library

1978. The country is recovering from the disillusionment of Watergate, and the FBI is recovering from the toxic legacy of former director J. Edgar Hoover. After beginning to reform the bureau, Clarence Kelley, Hoover’s successor, has just retired. President Carter names Webster the new director of the FBI. Carter is a Democrat. Webster is a Republican. The Washington Post 
reports: “Webster is little-known nationally, but has a reputation for honesty and fairness in his native St. Louis.”

1987. The country is reeling from the Iran-Contra affair, which implicates the CIA. President Reagan names Webster
the new director. The New York Times reports: “Mr. Webster has a reputation for absolute integrity.”

2002. Webster jokes about this twin distinction—as the only one to lead the FBI and the CIA—in an interview for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Oral History Program. “The proof of the pudding,” he says, “is whether they ever have another one or not.”

1941. Webster begins his freshman year at Amherst, which he attends on scholarship. At the end of his first semester, Pearl Harbor is attacked; after sophomore year, he joins the Navy. He’ll graduate in 1947 with majors in 
history and political science. At Amherst, he joins the Christian Association and The 
Amherst Student. He is also on the wrestling and soccer teams: “I wouldn’t say I was a star in either,” he recalls, smiling, in one of our interviews. In the Debate Society he shines, however, winning the Rogers Prize. In the Glee Club he does not shine. When Webster auditions, music professor Henry Mishkin winces and says he can join on one condition: “if you promise not to sing.”

1979. Webster accelerates the efforts of his predecessor, Kelley, to diversify the FBI. (Hoover had hired almost exclusively white male agents.) In 1976 the FBI recruited 104 Black male agents and 117 
Latino agents, according to U.S. News & World Report. By the end of Webster’s tenure, the FBI will have roughly doubled those numbers, and increased the presence of women at the bureau nine-fold, from about 90 to 800, as he recalled in the oral history.

1998. Tom Brokaw publishes The Greatest Generation, which posits that those who lived through the Depression and fought in World War II shaped the country like no other generation. Brokaw includes 
Webster, but not for his combat experience (he had none). Rather it’s because Webster credits, Brokaw writes, “the discipline and organizational skills he learned from the Navy” with helping him in “the formidable job of reorganizing the FBI after the chaos of the Watergate years.”

1951. In his second tour in the Navy, during the Korean War, Webster, fresh out of law school, represents a sailor accused of stealing batteries. When Webster finds out that the sailor had not been advised of his right to counsel before interrogation, he tells his client to remain silent. A message is sent up to the top brass: “Due to Lieutenant Webster’s interference, unable to obtain confession.” Fleet headquarters later gives 
Webster a commendation for his “interference”—and the right-to-counsel advisory 
becomes part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As a Navy ‌lawyer, Webster ‌advises a client to remain silent.

1966. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren writes 
Miranda v. Arizona. The decision leads to the creation of the Miranda warnings, which inform criminal suspects of certain Constitutional rights, including their right to remain silent. What precedents does Warren cite? Among others, the military’s rules for interrogating suspects.

1973. Webster becomes a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. This is a known stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. After Amherst, Webster had returned to St. Louis to attend law school at Washington University and soon turned to public service, climbing from U.S. attorney to district court judge.

1975. President Ford nominates John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court. Ford has been working off a list of 20 potential nominees: he marks Webster as his sixth choice. As other vacancies occur, 
Webster’s chance of ascending to the highest court theoretically remains high.

An illustration of spies located around a pair of zipped lips

1978. Justice Department officials leak to The New York Times that Carter will likely offer Webster the FBI directorship. Webster faces a 
dilemma: If he takes the job, he may be tied to cases that are a future conflict of interest for a Supreme Court justice, and he may also run afoul of senators in a position to later confirm a nominee. As I’ll learn in our interview: He goes to Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger for counsel. Burger says it would be a mistake to take the FBI job. Webster heads to the Department of Justice for a second opinion, from Attorney General Griffin Bell. But Bell is stuck on the phone, so Webster pops in to see Solicitor General Wade McCree. McCree says his country needs him right now, that the FBI could really use somebody like Webster, who could go in there and set things straight. McCree’s words change Webster’s life. He takes the FBI job—and gives up the dream of joining the Supreme Court.

1978. FBI “Hoover hardhats,” the old-guard agents, are suspicious of Webster, mostly because he was never an agent himself. “He knew he had to gain the confidence of those people,” Bill Baker—an FBI assistant director for much of Webster’s tenure—will tell me in an interview. “So he put a few people close to him who he knew were dubious of him, and he was able to win them over, like Lincoln in that book Team of Rivals.”

1987. When he becomes CIA director, agents also object that Webster is an outsider. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, they grouse that he is a far cry from the colorful William Donovan, the founding father of the CIA. Donovan’s nickname was “Wild Bill.” At the CIA, Webster gets his own, hardly admiring, nickname: “Mild Bill.”

An older man wearing glasses

Webster in 2014, during his tenure as chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. That year, he also becomes the target of a phone scam. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

1979. Webster decides to champion four priorities for the bureau. The first three are a continuation of Kelley’s: 
organized crime, white-collar crime and counterintelligence. The fourth is new: counterterrorism. From 1980 to 1986, there are an average of 30 
terrorist attacks in the U.S. per year, mostly skyjackings, pipe bombs and the like. In 1987, when Webster leaves the FBI, the average is down to nine. “So the process of focusing on intelligence as applied to terrorism paid off,” Webster will say in the 2002 oral history. “My theme was to get there before the bomb goes off.”

1983. Webster launches the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, the first such civilian force. Since then, the team has had some 200 successful missions, including apprehending Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2013. It has also been accused of overreach, as in the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas.

1972. The FBI creates its Behavioral Science Unit to help investigators track and understand the psychology of serial killers and mass murderers.

1978. Webster gives official approval for the unit to offer psychological profile consultations to local law enforcement. During Webster’s tenure, the FBI will take part in the investigations and arrests of several serial killers, most famously in the case of the Atlanta Child Murders that terrorized the city between 1979 and 1981.

2019. The Atlanta Child Murders are the focus of Season 2 of the Netflix series Mindhunter, based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Webster is played by actor Sean Cullen. In the finale, the unit helps bring in the suspect. “Webster’s very pleased,” says the head of the unit. “We closed the highest-profile case in the country. … From now on, we’ll be first in. Atlanta’s changed everything.”

1981. Abscam convictions come down. This FBI sting operation is the first in history to catch U.S. government officials on videotape accepting bribes. As a judge, Webster saw firsthand how cases could be thrown out due to issues of entrapment. To prevent that fate, he makes sure that agents play by the book. Of the 31 officials targeted, 12 are convicted, including six congressmen, a U.S. senator and a mayor.

2013. The movie American Hustle earns 10 Oscar nominations. It is loosely based on Abscam.

1984. Drusilla Lane Webster, Webster’s wife of 34 years, dies at age 57. They have three children. She was a Christian Scientist, and he adopted her faith early in their marriage. Bill Baker will tell me in an interview that Webster set out to cope with his grief by working even harder.

2022. Today, and for most of his adult life, Webster begins each morning by reading a Bible lesson from the Christian Science church. Of the role of faith in his life, he says this in our interview: “I like to think that much of the progress in my professional life has been aided by my searching for the truth in every important issue affecting not only my life, but the lives of other people, for which I have some responsibility.”

A Coke on a plane is not just a Coke on a plane.

1981. President Reagan is shot. Webster is there when the suspect, John Hinckley Jr., comes before the magistrate. He will recall the occasion in the 2002 oral history: “Somebody said, ‘Why are you here?’ My memory is that I said, ‘I just came to watch.’ But it was reported that I said, ‘It happened on my watch.’ Maybe that’s what I said—I’m not sure.” Right after seeing Hinckley, Webster goes to sit with Reagan at his hospital bedside.

1981. For the past six years, FBI agent Joe Pistone has been undercover, posing as a jewel thief, to get close to members of the New York mafia, especially the Bonanno family. He gains their trust enough that he is on the verge of becoming a “made man,” formally accepted into the syndicate—but he will have to prove himself by doing a hit. Webster says that is a bridge too far and pulls Pistone out. Pistone’s extensive knowledge of the players and their crimes leads to more than 100 federal convictions. Pistone’s undercover name? Donnie Brasco.

1997. The movie Donnie Brasco is released. It immortalizes the phrase “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

1981. Webster establishes a labor racketeering unit within the FBI’s organized crime division. Louis Freeh, eventually the fifth director of the FBI, becomes one of its undercover agents.

2008. In an episode of the Inside the FBI podcast, Freeh assesses the unit’s impact: “The bureau … started to look at organized crime as an enterprise target as opposed to an individual target. And that was very, very significant, and I think really was responsible for acceleration of the anti-La Cosa Nostra program and really the substantial weakening and attenuation of that organization over the next 20 years.”

1990. Following six years as a widower, Webster marries again. Soon after, Lynda Clugston Webster gets a taste of what’s at stake, being a director’s spouse. She innocently takes a Diet Coke from the government plane they’d just landed in. In the car ride after, her husband spots the soda and firmly tells her never to do something like that again, because the media could blow up the story. As she’ll recall in our interview: “He said they’re not going to say, ‘The director’s wife took a Coke off the plane.’ They’re going to say, ‘She’s taking things off the plane.’ He said there’s black and there’s white. There’s no gray in what we do.”

1976. Kelley, Webster’s FBI predecessor, a few months from getting married, is criticized in the press for having the FBI install window valances in his apartment, at a cost of $335. He pays the money back and stays on the job. But some officials tell reporters he should be fired for the transgression, and this becomes a thorny issue in President Ford’s failed reelection campaign.

1999. Webster tells an audience at Washington University that he has tried to be “a private man in public life.” He means that he’s neither an elected official nor a career bureaucrat, but rather someone who can offer a needed service because of particular qualifications, and who can leave at any time rather than compromise his principles. This is the glue that holds the government together, he argues, “because it brings the outside citizen, the rest of us, the governed, into the governing process.”

An illustration of an airplane with a coke can in the middle of it

1987. Webster, in the 10th year of his 10-year FBI term, is looking forward to returning to private life, according to the oral history. He makes tentative plans to join a law firm.

1986. The Iran-Contra scandal breaks in the press. The CIA is deeply implicated in a scheme to sell weapons to Iran to bankroll the release of hostages in Lebanon and fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

1987. In January, CIA director William Casey, increasingly under fire because of Iran-Contra, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Robert Gates, his deputy, becomes acting director. Casey dies of cancer in May.

1987. In April, Webster is in a car headed to Capitol Hill, prepping to testify on the FBI budget—and Reagan calls. The president asks if he will accept the directorship of the CIA. Webster tells the president he wants to pray on it and talk to his children. Reagan gives Webster one day to decide.

A person getting sworn into office net to Ronald Reagan

On May 26, 1987, President Reagan looks on as Webster is sworn in as the new head of the CIA. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

2012. “He had been head of the white hats, the good guys,” recalls Thomas Twetten, a retired top CIA official, to The New York Times about Webster’s role at the FBI. “And all of a sudden, the White House assigns him to be in charge of the black hats, the dirty rotten spies.”

1987. At his confirmation hearings, Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, pointedly asks Webster what he would do should the White House push for a covert action that Webster was against. “If you know that the action is arbitrary and wrong … and you cannot in conscience support it, you’ve got to leave,” says Webster. Says Warner: “I’m most reassured by that response.”

1987. Time magazine runs this headline: “Webster Cleans Up Casey’s Mess.”

1997. Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, chief of the CIA’s Latin America division and a key figure in Iran-Contra, writes a memoir that is highly dismissive of Webster: “All of his training as a lawyer and a judge was that you didn’t do illegal things. He could never accept that this is exactly what the CIA does when it operates abroad. … Webster had an insurmountable problem with the raison d’être of the organization he was brought in to run.”

1991. Clarridge is indicted on seven counts of perjury and making false statements about Iran-Contra.

1989. President Bush, himself a former CIA director, 
orders the agency to find means to get Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega out of office. Four covert attempts to unseat Noriega go nowhere, and Bush urges the CIA to do a fifth attempt, a paramilitary operation. Covert operators are reluctant, saying only a full-on military invasion can get Noriega out. Tim Weiner writes in Legacy of Ashes: 
“Furious, Bush let it be known that he was learning more about events in Panama from CNN than CIA. That was the end of William Webster’s standing as director of central intelligence.”

1989. The Berlin Wall comes down.

1990. Webster, in Congressional testimony, says that CIA intelligence shows the dissolution of the Soviet Union is 
“irreversible.” But Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney wants to avoid military spending cuts, even if the USSR no longer poses such a threat. On TV that Sunday, Cheney says that Webster’s testimony is “not helpful.”

The Berlin Wall comes down.

1990. The CIA gleans that Boris Yeltsin, a former member of the Politburo, is steadily gaining popularity in Russia.

2002. Webster recalls in the oral history that the Yeltsin intelligence was unwelcome in Washington at the time, since the White House wanted to improve its relationship with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and was vexed that the CIA was pushing Yeltsin: “Because they’re all in the policy business, they think we’re pushing things. I’d say, ‘We’re not pushing anybody. We’re telling you that Gorbachev is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Soviet Union and you’d better pay attention to Yeltsin.’ ”

1991. Yeltsin becomes president of Russia.

1991. The Gulf War begins. The CIA has been gathering intelligence on Iraqi troop 
positions nearing Kuwait. Analysts accurately predict, to the day, when the Iraqi invasion will launch. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will say of the start of the operation: “No commanders in history ever had better intelligence.”

1991. The CIA’s battlefield intelligence wins no such praise. After the war, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf testifies in Congress that battlefield analyses from intelligence agencies were “caveated, disagreed with, footnoted and watered down.” He adds: “We’d still be sitting over there waiting if we were dependent upon that analysis.”

1991. Webster resigns from the CIA. The Washington Post reports: “One senior official said yesterday that Webster was not directly pushed out of the agency but ‘there are ways of letting someone know his resignation will be accepted, and one of those ways is the drip-drop of complaint’ that had made its way into the press throughout Webster’s tenure.”

1991. Bush awards Webster the National Security Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

An illustration of a hand knocking down a section of wall

1992. A jury acquits four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King. More than 60 people die in the ensuing riots. The city forms a commission, and Webster is asked to lead it. The Webster Commission’s report prompts this response from the Los Angeles Times: “The home video that made Rodney G. King a household name set firmly into motion a broad and timely reform of the Los Angeles Police Department. Wednesday, the second great chapter of that reform went public: the findings of the Webster Commission.”

1995. John M. Deutch ’60 becomes the 17th CIA director. He is the third Amherst alumnus named to the post: Webster was the 14th director and his classmate Stansfield Turner ’45 was the 12th.

2005. Webster becomes chair of the Homeland Security 
Advisory Council. Over his 15-year tenure, the council will advise the secretary of homeland security on topics such as biotechnology, border security and attacks on faith-based communities.

2019. Webster steps back into the public eye to criticize the Trump administration’s statements about the FBI. He writes in a New York Times op-ed: “I know firsthand the professionalism of the men and women of the F.B.I. The aspersions cast upon them by the president and my long-time friend Attorney General William P. Barr are troubling in the extreme. Calling F.B.I. professionals ‘scum,’ as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe.”

2014. The Websters help catch the phone scammer. Suspicious of the Mega Millions/Mercedes-Benz story line, they contact the FBI. When the scammer phones back, agents are listening in, and the Websters string the caller along until they get the man’s name and email address. In 2019, when the man comes to the U.S., he is arrested at the airport.

2022. On Senior Fraud Awareness Day, the FBI unveils a new public service 
announcement. Webster is the spokesman. As photos of him roll by—in his judge’s robes, in his FBI office, at CIA headquarters—he warns senior citizens about telephone scams. “If it can happen to me,” he says, “it can happen to you.”

2022. In our final interview, I ask Webster if he is proud of what he has accomplished for himself and for the country. “I find the word proud a dangerous word,” he says. Then he pauses and adds: “I’m pleased.”

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior editor.

Illustrations by Adam McCauley