BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ronald Kessler, what do roast beef and the FBI have to do with one another?
RONALD KESSLER, AUTHOR, "THE FBI: INSIDE THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY" It has a lot to do with the FBI, and it's also a funny story. An agent in New York wanted to have lunch, and he went around the field office around the corner and went to a deli that he thought was one of those establishments that offers a special deal to FBI agents, either a discount or more food or whatever. So he went in and he ordered a roast beef sandwich, and the counterman piled on the slices and then he shoved it over towards him. The FBI agent looked at it, and it just didn't look like anything special. It wasn't any huge amount of meat at all, so he pulled out his FBI credentials and he said, "FBI. More roast beef." The counterman just sort of looked at him, and he didn't know what he was talking about because it wasn't one of those special establishments. The story soon spread all around the FBI, all around its field offices and throughout the world because it tells you a lot about the FBI. Agents, just break into peals of laughter when they hear it.
That is, that with those credentials, with the official authority of the FBI, you can do what Superman does almost. You can wire-tap, you can break into homes, you can even shoot people under certain circumstances, you can get all this damaging information from the files, you can by-pass airport security; you can get into movies free, on and on and on. But it has to be done with official authority, with approval by the bureau and not to get more roast beef. But this story continues because when agents are dissatisfied with anything they say, "More roast beef." Or if they want to tell their supervisors that they showed their credentials they say, "I roast beefed 'em." So it's just sort of a great legend, and the truth isn't quite that. I actually found the individual who was responsible for this little gambit, and he claims it was actually a corned beef sandwich. There were a few other details that he says were slightly off, but basically it was a true story.
LAMB: After talking to FBI agents, where is their number one choice to go with the FBI?
KESSLER: In terms of future?
KESSLER: It often just depends on where their hometown is. They frequently like to end up back home. The last place they want to go to is New York because they don't like the violent crime there, not that they don't want to pursue those kinds of cases but just in terms of getting mugged on the way to work. It's not much fun. Living costs are high, and some of the most bizarre personnel incidents occur in New York.
LAMB: Because every other chapter or so is about a city in your book, let me just ask you about some of these places and what the things were that got your attention in these places. Let's pick Dallas.
KESSLER: Dallas had a wonderful case involving the Bandidos, this motorcycle gang that would kill people, engage in drugs, all kinds of things, thefts. In order to penetrate this, the FBI took over a bar and actually operated it and eventually made a profit. An agent working undercover was the bartender and supposedly the owner of the bar, and it became a hangout for the Bandidos. So the whole place was wired and video cameras all over, and everything that went on was taped and they would discuss their deals.
They would discuss, you know, when they were going to hijack some truck or even murders that they committed. Every night the agent would dictate reports to another agent and eventually almost a hundred Bandidos in four or five states were arrested as a result of that. But one of the most difficult parts of it was trying to avoid some of the various presents that these Bandidos offered the bartender because they befriended him, and one of the best presents they could offer was lovely young girls who were sort of part of their harem. Each Bandido would have four or five girls who would be so-called girlfriends, and so they would want to offer sexual favors to this FBI agent and he had to try to finesse his way out of it because he couldn't very well do that. But at the same time he didn't want to seem to be a law-enforcement type who didn't want to engage in that type of thing. Those are some of the little frustrations that you encounter in the FBI.
LAMB: Go back in this story in Dallas. To start with, is that a big office?
KESSLER: It's about a medium-sized office.
LAMB: Where is it located?
KESSLER: Oh, it's in some nice new part of town.
LAMB: I remember your writing about West End. I mean, did you go there? Do you travel to these places?
KESSLER: Yes. Right. It all starts to run together after a while.
LAMB: It's probably not fair for me to pick out specifics in here, but do the FBI in places like Dallas live well there? Are the houses nice?
KESSLER: Yes. It's over a nice Mexican restaurant, and it's fairly nice carpeting and very high security devices, of course.
LAMB: Go back to that story about the Bandidos. How does the FBI buy a bar, and whose idea was it to do something like that?
KESSLER: They had a previous owner who wanted to give it up, and so they made a deal with her whereby she would keep the liquor license in her name but the FBI would operate it and would assume all liability. Eventually it just sort of disappeared, I guess, because she didn't want it back. The idea typically will originate either in a field office, or in this case I think it was in headquarters where the idea originated. The agent actually was based in New York, and they purposely brought him from another city so that he wouldn't be recognized.
LAMB: What was the purpose? What were they after?
KESSLER: They were after real hard evidence that they could show to a jury that would convict these people. You know, these days juries are used to seeing video tapes or listening to tape recorders. They don't want to hear witnesses, and a lot of times witnesses are wrong. I mean, the best way is to have basically a sting operation, which is where you can videotape everything that happens.
LAMB: Was there an individual that went there and ran it and anybody that came in there thought was the owner?
KESSLER: Right. It was this one agent who was undercover and he would have long hair and he was a real tough guy, and he had a lot of experience in running bars because before he joined the FBI he actually had operated some bars in New Orleans. The FBI does, in fact, like to get new agents who have some kind of professional background in almost anything, whether it is jewelry or running bars, because that can often be used in these undercover operations.
LAMB: Did you go to this bar?
KESSLER: No. By the time I did the book, it was closed.
LAMB: How old a story is this?
KESSLER: I think it went down about five or six years ago.
LAMB: You say they put cameras and recording devices. If you sat at the bar all those conversations could be heard?
KESSLER: That's right, yes.
LAMB: Is this legal?
KESSLER: Oh, yes. They would get court approval for intercepting conversations in that way. Of course, in this case, since the FBI basically owned it, they could probably do it all by themselves. But whenever they do electronic interception they get a court order.
LAMB: How many FBI agents are there in the country?
KESSLER: They are 10,300 agents and then about 23,000 total employees, including those agents.
LAMB: What kind of power do they have?
KESSLER: Well, it's a lot. It's much more than any local police department, for sure, and probably more than most foreign law enforcement agencies, in part because of the tremendous resources that the FBI has, the FBI laboratory, which is so advanced and the fact that they can call on resources of other law enforcement Agencies Interpol, CIA, so if anybody has gone overseas they can track them down that way. There are tremendous techniques that they use such as profiling of criminal suspects in serial murders or rape cases, where they actually describe in great detail who the subject probably was, and then they actually find that person, which isn't to say that they don't make mistakes and there are a lot of screw-ups and embarrassing incidents that occur. But overall they are very successful as we saw in the World Trade Center bombing case recently and also the fact that they aborted the planned bombing of the U.N.
LAMB: Do you have to have a special education of any kind to be an agent?
KESSLER: You have to have a four-year college degree, which is different from a lot of other law enforcement agencies. Then they usually do take people who already have established professional reputations; they've already even been stock brokers or accountants or lawyers.
LAMB: Was there a time when either CIA agents or FBI agents had to be either lawyers or accountants?
KESSLER: That was one of the many myths under the Hoover regime, that they all had to be accountants or lawyers. In fact, only about roughly the same percentage as today, about 15 percent of them, are lawyers and about 15 percent of them are accountants. But, again, they really want a diverse background anyway. They don't want all lawyers or all accountants.
LAMB: You mention Buck Revell a lot. Who was he?
KESSLER: He's still the head of the Dallas field office. He was formerly one of the top high-ranking officials in the FBI for many, many years, and he had a lot to do with bringing the FBI into the modern era after Hoover. He's also known as someone who likes to put a lot of plaques on his wall. He receives a lot of plaques, and so he is sometimes the butt of jokes. When he retired there were a lot of jokes about that at his retirement party. But he has a really brilliant mind and a tremendous knowledge of the FBI, so he was a great resource.
LAMB: Got any idea whether the FBI likes this book?
KESSLER: I think, overall, the more sophisticated agents like it. They think it's fair, and they've said it's dead-on accurate. In fact, they're amazed at how accurate it is. I think some of the Neanderthal types, who still have that Hoover mentality that the bureau should never be criticized and the bureau never does any wrong or if it does we certainly don't tell the public about it, will not like it.
LAMB: No coffee?
KESSLER: No coffee under Hoover one of those strange, endless quirks that Hoover had, which was that he didn't allow agents to drink coffee, although clerks and secretaries could have coffee. If you were caught drinking coffee on the job, even outside of the field office, you were transferred frequently, and many agents were. They would all, of course, spend a lot of time trying to circumvent that rule and go far away from the field office to drink coffee, thereby wasting even more time.
KESSLER: Hoover had a lot of things that are very hard to explain, a lot of aspects to his personality. I think there was some idea in his mind that agents had to appear to be these perfect specimens who didn't need to drink coffee, that coffee would be seen as being wasteful or slovenly or just somehow not in the image of the FBI.
There was so much emphasis under Hoover on this image idea and his particular concept of what an agent should look like. Pear-shaped heads were out, bald heads were out. Of course, blacks were out, females were out. They had to look like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., if at all possible. Underneath all that image there was not a lot that the bureau was doing. The bureau was spending most of its time trying to catch car thieves and other minor criminals just to generate statistics that they could show to Congress to show how many arrests they made. They were trying to, you know, get bigger budgets. They were trying to maintain Hoover's position as director.
Meanwhile, the really important crimes that only the FBI can address well were being ignored, such as organized crime, political corruption, including members of Congress who are corrupt, even local sheriffs, Hoover wouldn't go after white collar crime. Even in espionage cases Hoover confused political dissidents with spying, so the result was that not only that he undermined the rights of Americans by going after political dissidents who had not engaged in criminal behavior but also didn't do a very good job of catching spies.
LAMB: Could this book had been written if J. Edgar Hoover was still director of the FBI?
KESSLER: Absolutely not. I would probably be in some danger, or if I had written such a book under Hoover he would have a so-called "do not contact" list of reporters who had written anything critical about the FBI, and they would not have any help from the FBI whatsoever. I had done some stories when Hoover was alive in the Boston Herald and even the Washington Post, which Hoover didn't like, about the FBI wiretapping illegally and about the FBI keeping files on members of Congress for blackmail purposes, and that earned some critical comments in my FBI file from Hoover.
LAMB: Have you looked at your file?
KESSLER: I have.
LAMB: What's in there?
KESSLER: Little scribbles from Hoover, some of which are indecipherable, but they definitely were not praise.
LAMB: What kind of things are in a file like yours?
KESSLER: They were all press related. You know, "He's done this story," or "He's working on this story on FBI wiretapping. Do not cooperate." Even, "Here's a photograph of him in case you see him; this is what he looks like." That sort of thing.
LAMB: Did he think, or did the FBI think, that those files would ever be available to the public?
KESSLER: No way. The Freedom of Information Act had not been passed then, and they thought that these files would never be seen by the public, some of them, for example, in the COINTELPRO program that the FBI mounted, which was a method of trying to disrupt political dissidents.
LAMB: What does that mean, by the way, COINTELPRO?
KESSLER: It was based on the concept that the FBI would use counterintelligence methods in a proactive way to disrupt political dissidents. Counterintelligence methods normally are directed against foreign spies, not against Americans. But there was a break-in in the Media, Pa., office of the FBI, called the resident agency and a lot of those files were taken and then they were mailed anonymously to various newspapers. That started to open up the fact to the public that the FBI had been engaging in these kinds of improper activities, and so that is how some of these files did in fact get out early on.
LAMB: You mentioned Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. His daughter Stephanie Zimbalist is part of your book in a Los Angeles stalking case. What was that about?
KESSLER: She was the victim of one of these typical star stalkers who would become fixated on her and constantly write her letters showing that he had actually trailed her all over the world. They were somewhat threatening in tone. So she called the FBI herself; she didn't have her famous father do it. In fact, at first she didn't want her father to know about it. The Los Angeles office of the FBI got on the case. They had never before actually gotten involved in star-stalker cases. They thought of it as a local jurisdiction. But the FBI, if it really wants to, can assume jurisdiction almost any time it wants.
For example, the Wayne Williams killings in Atlanta where all those children were killed was a local case but the mayor and the governor appealed to Carter and to Griffin Bell, the attorney general, to get the FBI into it. The FBI made up this reason to get into it, which was that one of the bodies had not been found and maybe, therefore, had been taken over state lines. So, therefore, they assumed jurisdiction because of the crossing of state lines, but they knew that the body probably had not been taken over state lines, but they solved the case. In the Zimbalist case, the FBI really got into star-stalker cases at that point and just did a really good job of tracking the suspect, who mentioned too many places where he had been watching the actress, too many hotels.
LAMB: You quote him or you quote Gardner here. I'm not sure who Gardner was.
KESSLER: She was the case agent, Karen Gardner.
LAMB: "I matched her travel schedule from 1987 on," Gardner said. "When he said," meaning the stalker," `you were in Dallas on June 13,' she was in Dallas on June 13. Even in pulling the hotel records, when he said, `You were on the 14th floor,' she was. It was very real." This particular stalker for Stephanie Zimbalist, how long did he stalk her?
KESSLER: I think it went over a period of several years, actually. Then it started building up, and that's when she started to really get scared.
LAMB: What were the techniques that they used in order to get him?
KESSLER: In order to track his whereabouts, they got records from airlines to see if he had been on them and what flights he was on, what records from hotels, and they just sort of began to pull it all together. It started to point to this one individual who in turn had been involved in some previous law-enforcement problems involving threats too, I believe, a professor. So they felt that they had the right person, and then they actually were able to track his whereabouts to another location where the actress was, and they followed him.
When the FBI follows someone, you know, it's not just one agent following the person. It may be five or six or seven agents, and they're dressed in plain clothes. They may be in ice cream trucks or bulldozers, and they may also have a plane overhead. So there is quite a bit of sophisticated surveillance involved. They actually watched this individual mail a post card in a mailbox, and they were able to open the mailbox, again with court authority, and retrieve the post card and, sure enough, it was a post card to the actress with more threats. So they really had a lot of evidence, and they finally did arrest him in his hotel. He actually confessed to some degree. He claimed he wasn't going to kill her or anything like that. It turned out that he had all kinds of weapons in his home, but he made a confession and he was sent to jail.
LAMB: There are 578 agents in Los Angeles and you say it's the bank robbery capital of the world.
KESSLER: It certainly is of this country, anyway. Yes, no one is quite sure why it is, just a combination of the sort of easy access out there to freeways. People can get away easily. The banks out there tend not to believe in bandit barriers, which are bullet-proof glass partitions between the customer and the teller. A lot of other banks don't use them either. But especially in California they like this free and easy attitude and, of course, that's rather silly. The FDIC, which insures banks, requires all kinds of other devices in banks like alarms and vaults, and yet they don't require bandit barriers, which cost a little more money but not only save money but save lives.
LAMB: The budget for the FBI for a year?
KESSLER: Oh, it's roughly $2 billion, and this agent force of 10,300 compares with about 30,000 police officers in New York City.
LAMB: How many directors have there been?
KESSLER: I guess there have been five including the new one.
LAMB: But counting L. Patrick Gray and William Ruckelshaus?
KESSLER: No, just the actual directors. Hoover was director for 48 years.
LAMB: When did the FBI start, and when did he leave?
KESSLER: He became director in 1924. Before that it was an arm of the Justice Department, and it had various different names. I believe it started in 1908, and then he died in office in 1972.
LAMB: Then what happened?
KESSLER: Well, the FBI started to get out of this mold, on the one hand, of going after car thieves and then, on the other hand, engaging in illegal practices and keeping files on not only members of Congress for blackmail purposes but also files on writers and actresses and Ernest Hemingway. It was essentially a national thought police, and everyone knew that if they said anything that was contrary to government policy or certainly criticized the FBI, they would end up in the files and this might leak out. Even if it didn't, the perception was enough to keep some people, many people, in fear. But Clarence Kelley, who became director, started this process towards modernizing the FBI, and then William Webster really got it going. He really started the FBI focusing on these complex investigations that are sensitive and take many years.
ABSCAM was one example which resulted in convictions of members of Congress, a very controversial investigation which provoked some criticism in Congress, as you can imagine, but a very important one obviously because, you know, politicians can't be exempt from the laws. Then William Sessions tried to emphasize the administrative side and the personnel side. He tried to modernize the FBI in its record-keeping practices. The FBI would keep duplicate records for no reason and just had done many things the same way that were done under Hoover. He did talk a lot about promoting equality within the FBI, but basically he just continued the policy of hiring more minorities and more females that Webster had started.
LAMB: On the back of the book it says, "Ronald Kessler, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency by the award-winning journalist whose investigation brought down FBI Director William S. Sessions." When you see that on the back of the book, what's your reaction?
KESSLER: My reaction? I think I had a good editor who came up with that.
LAMB: Do you agree with that language?
KESSLER: Well, that's what the Justice Department report by the Office of Professional Responsibility, which was used by Clinton as a basis for firing Sessions, said, that the investigation started with the letter that I wrote and also an anonymous letter which obviously was related to my letter because it was dated the day after my letter was received by the FBI.
LAMB: Let's go back to the beginning. When did you start this book?
KESSLER: In some ways I started it 30 years ago when I started my career because I have been doing FBI-related stories and books for a long time, including Spy Vs. Spy, which is on the FBI's counterintelligence program and is the most secret part of the FBI. But I started it two years ago and did it full-time for a year and then quite a bit subsequent to that in the second year.
LAMB: Before we get into the specifics of this book, where are you from?
KESSLER: I was born in New York and brought up in Belmont, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. The John Birch Society was based there, and that was the only interesting thing we had there. Then I went to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, left after two years because I became very involved in a newspaper. I was editor of my school paper and then started working part-time and then full-time for the local paper, the Worcester Telegram, and just decided that I could learn more on my own by interviewing people, by reading for stories that I prepare than being told what to learn. Perhaps the fact that my parents were all academics contributed to this.
KESSLER: My father was a cancer researcher at Columbia Medical School and College of Physicians and Surgeons, and my stepfather was a physicist at MIT. My mother is a musician, not in the academic world, but I guess I had my fill of academics at that point.
LAMB: When did you get interested in journalism?
KESSLER: I started on my Sunday school newspaper. In fact, I started the Sunday school newspaper in Belmont, Mass., Bethel Temple Center, and then was an editor of my high school paper, Belmont High School newspaper, and then at the Clark Scholar, which was the college newspaper. I started working for the Worcester Telegram and then the Boston Herald, the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. So I've been through the mill as far as newspapers go.
LAMB: Did you have any access to the John Birch Society, being based there?
KESSLER: No. I guess I did try to interview them at some point, perhaps for the school paper. I think I did, and some of the students picketed the John Birch Society and I did stories about that. But I guess I knew as a journalist that you don't get involved in political activities like that. You remain as a journalist and disinterested and just write about what other people do.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
KESSLER: This will be my eighth book, The FBI.
LAMB: When was the first one?
KESSLER: The first one was, I believe, 1984, which was on the life insurance industry and how it works and how it rips people off.
LAMB: When did you leave the Washington Post?
KESSLER: Officially in 1987, but I'd been on leave for three years before that.
LAMB: Why did you leave?
KESSLER: I left because I started writing books and enjoyed it. It was a way of getting more in depth into subjects, and it's fun.
LAMB: In the introduction and the last part of the book, a lot is spent on William Sessions. Let's go back to that. When you decided to write this book, where did you start asking for access?
KESSLER: I went to the FBI after my agent, Robert Gottlie, had come up with the idea and went to the bureau people and said I'd like to do this book. They said, "Oh great." We went out to lunch. But it turned out that their idea of access was a very limited one, that they wanted to really control the book and that I would have to go through them before interviewing anybody. They would sit in on the interviews, they would decide who should be interviewed for what subjects, on and on and on. It was much more restrictive than any other dealings I had had with the FBI.
So, finally, it all came to a head when it turned out that they heard that I had been interviewing Bill Baker, who was then over at the Criminal Division of the FBI and that they had not been told about it. Baker had previously written a memo to them saying that they should cooperate, in his opinion; that he had dealt with me a lot both at the FBI and at the CIA, where he had worked for Webster as his PR person. But they were telling me that I should tell Bill Baker, the assistant director of the FBI, to notify them that he was being interviewed. It was a crazy situation, and so I finally called Baker at home one Sunday. I had dealt with him on that basis before and told him what was happening. In fact, the PR people said, "If you do call anybody, including Baker, without telling us, we're not going to cooperate anymore."
It was just ludicrous. But I did call Baker and told him what was happening, and he said he'd take care of it. He is a sophisticated agent and well versed in public affairs both at the CIA and the FBI. He said that he realized that if this book were to be credible and read that it would have to have all the warts, and to have that, as he put it, I would have to be able to test what the FBI tells me by having this free access. So he took care of it. He talked to Jim Greenleaf, who was then associate deputy director, who also had dealt with me before, and they both went to Floyd Clarke, who is the deputy director of the FBI, and he in turn recommended to Sessions that they really open the doors, and that's what happened. Sessions sent a teletype to all of the 23,000 FBI employees saying that the FBI is cooperating on this book and outlining terms that did give me this free access so that I could call people freely. I didn't have to tell anybody, and I could interview people without PR people being present. It really gave me exactly what I needed to do the book.
LAMB: And then go back to the back of this book, "Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency by the award-winning journalist whose investigation brought down FBI Director William S. Sessions." He gave you the access, unlimited access, and this book then brought him down. How?
KESSLER: In the course of doing the book, about three or four months after I had started, I got a tip from a long-term source, perhaps we can call him Deep Bureau, who mentioned one aspect of these abuses that were going on which had to do with the fact that Sessions was trying to award a $100,000 contract for security at his home in Washington to a person in San Antonio who just happened to be the husband of his then long-term administrative assistant, Sarah Munford. I was able to confirm that with another FBI official.
Then I asked Sessions about it in one of my interviews with him. I had about four interviews with him, and I went to New York with him on the FBI plane with his wife Alice. He responded by saying, "Oh, yes, that was Ron McCall," who was this low-level security person over the director's security detail. That was his decision to give the contract to the husband of his assistant. Well, he didn't have to know anything about this to realize that, of course, that was disingenuous, and that just set off all the alarm bells in my head. As an investigative reporter for a long time, if anything indicated there was something wrong there, that was it. For the director to claim that it was the decision of this low-level guy to award this sweetheart contract was obviously untrue.
LAMB: Let me just interrupt to go back so we can get it clear. Sarah Munford did what for FBI Director Sessions?
KESSLER: She had been his administrative assistant for a long time, even going back to when he was chief judge of the federal court in San Antonio. She had caused a tremendous number of problems in the FBI, had abused her authority. She had and this is part of the abuses that I got into subsequently, she used her FBI credentials to try to get off on a ticket when she was stopped in Texas by a state trooper. She upbraided this trooper for even stopping her because she's the assistant to the FBI director. She also continued to register her car in Texas even though she had been living in Virginia for five years working for Sessions. Again, that's a violation of law, and if any FBI agent had done that, they would be severely disciplined, and yet Sessions was aware of it and had allowed it to continue.
LAMB: How do you know he was aware of it?
KESSLER: I talked to his wife Alice, and she said that they were aware of it. They socialize a lot. They saw her car, and there had been some complaints. In fact, high-ranking FBI officials had brought many of these matters to the attention of Sessions over the years, warning him that if he continued it he might lose his directorship, and he continued anyway.
LAMB: Who would warn a director? Who has the nerve to go in and tell their boss they've got problems?
KESSLER: It's done very, very gently and not as a big list of all these abuses you're engaging in but rather, "By the way, this is the rule on this matter." Buck Revell had written a memo to Sessions about the use of the FBI security detail almost as soon as Sessions took over because Sessions wanted to use the detail to pick up his father at the airport, things like that, and that's an improper use of the detail. It's not a taxi service. That memo, for example, is in the files.
LAMB: You said you went to New York with Director Sessions on his plane?
KESSLER: On the FBI plane, right.
LAMB: And his wife was with you?
KESSLER: That's right.
LAMB: Did you have to pay for that trip?
KESSLER: Yes, unfortunately.
LAMB: What's it cost for you to ride with the FBI director?
KESSLER: I paid the shuttle price from Washington to New York.
LAMB: Why did he take you with him?
KESSLER: I'd asked to go on a trip with him just to depict how he takes his trips, what he does, etc. In this case he had given out awards to FBI agents in New York. One female agent had almost single-handedly warded off some thugs who were armed who were after some New York City detectives, for example. I came up with a number of other methods of getting inside the bureau, like sitting in on Sessions's meetings with his assistant directors at a breakfast meeting, and I went to see a wiretap room where they monitor conversations and also a secret FBI airport where they keep their little air force which is used for surveillance.
LAMB: They let you see all this?
KESSLER: They did.
LAMB: Why were they letting you do this?
KESSLER: I was sly, I guess.
LAMB: Why do you think they were letting you do this? Didn't you have questions all along, like this has never happened before; no reporter's been here before?
KESSLER: It was a combination of things, which frequently happens when you do a book, where you want the cooperation of the subject but you also want to remain independent. What you do is you try to get enough access so that they realize that they might as well cooperate more because it will look better, but at the same time if there's anything that's improper, presumably you'll find it. In this case, I don't think that Sessions ever thought that I would ever get into his abuses. Even after I wrote a letter to him outlining these abuses and he knew he was being investigated by the Justice Department over these abuses, he continued to engage in them, which tells me that he was so arrogant about them that he never thought anything of it.
LAMB: Let me clear something up. Has he ever been charged yet with any violation of the law?
KESSLER: He's not been charged criminally, but the Justice Department is billing him $30,000, which can be collected in a civil action if necessary for some of these matters; namely, the use of the FBI plane for personal trips and also the installation of a $10,000 fence on his property, which was supposed to be for security and was paid for by the taxpayers as a security device but in fact did not enhance security at all.
LAMB: Would it be normal, though, for an FBI director's security fence to be paid for by the government?
KESSLER: Yes, the government would pay for security devices at his home as long as they were reasonable and really would enhance security. The same thing happened with Webster when he was director.
LAMB: So what's the difference between William Webster having a security fence around his place and a $10,000 fence around Mr. Sessions's?
KESSLER: The difference is the kind of fence. The security people said that the proper kind of fence was one that the White House has and embassies in Washington have, which are steel and have very small slats so that you can see all the way through them from any angle, whereas the fence that was installed, even though it has slats, it's wooden and you can't see through from any angle and, therefore, someone who might want to kill the director, let's say, could be lurking behind the fence and the security people couldn't see that person.
LAMB: You've been around this town for a long time. You know there's been a lot of things going on with public officials that you've written about. Is this enough to say the FBI director ought to be removed, from what you've heard?
KESSLER: A lot of public officials have been removed for much less. For example, John Sununu was kicked out of the White House for taking some plane trips that were much more minor compared with plane trips that Sessions took. Sessions every other month would go back to Texas to his home state, and he'd make up some excuse like he was going to talk to a Rotary Club and then he'd go to San Francisco to see his daughter, he'd go to Atlantic City to see a ballet. All this was at taxpayer expense, $1,000 an hour is what the cost of the FBI plane is. That was only part of the abuses.
I mentioned the Sarah Munford abuses that he condoned. He also gave an FBI Building pass to his wife Alice, when you have to have a top-secret security clearance to have that pass, by federal regulation. Members of Congress and White House aides and journalists who come to the FBI Building have to all be signed in and escorted up, but only his wife Alice was allowed to just walk in at will with this pass. If FBI agents forget their pass, they're disciplined, there is a letter in their file, and yet she was able to have this privilege just because she was the director's wife. There was also a sweetheart mortgage on his home. That came out later. Because he was FBI director, he was given a special deal on the interest rate and the points by Riggs National Bank because Sessions had talked to the chairman of the board of Riggs.
LAMB: How do you know this?
KESSLER: This was detailed in the OPR report, the Office of Professional Responsibility. At first Sessions wouldn't even provide the mortgage documents for the investigators, which is sort of the tack taken by people who are being investigated by the FBI. Then when it all came out and the report came out, Sessions claimed that he had never been given a chance to give his side, which was untrue. He had spent four days being interviewed by the OPR people, and also I've seen the response that he's given to the OPR report, which is a very detailed, line-by-line rebuttal which is totally ineffective. But when he said he had never had a chance to actually respond, that was another disingenuous response.
LAMB: What was your relationship with him and Mrs. Sessions from the beginning? What happened to that relationship?
KESSLER: When I first went into it, I had this image that most people had, I think, of this former federal judge who probably was something like William Webster, the other director who'd been a judge before him. Then when I met him, he seemed extremely affable, a very, very nice kind of person. As I got into these abuses, of course, I was very puzzled and tried to figure it out in my mind.
How could this person who's so affable and seemed so caring and stood for equality also be so blind to the fact that he was engaging in wrongdoing? What I started to learn was that he was also rather arrogant. For example, when being briefed by FBI agents about very sensitive investigations, he would just start singing the Brylcreem commercial, for example. That's just one quirky example.
Then when he was introduced to a Chinese diplomat, he said there was no need for an interpreter, he speaks Chinese and then he started saying, "Chop suey, chow mein." I think that that indicates arrogance, and there was a certain nastiness to him, I thought, because when he finally did respond to my letter outlining these abuses, he wouldn't comment on them or answer any questions, but he bawled me out for looking into these matters at all or any embarrassing matters at the FBI.
He started comparing himself with some of the other directors, and he said that other directors' wives had been sick or had died, that William Webster's wife Dru had died. Well, she died. He apparently was criticizing Webster because his wife had died, and Clarence Kelley, the other director, because his wife was sick. In fact, Webster's wife, Dru, was dearly loved by the FBI and respected by the FBI and was alive for the first six years of Webster's term. So I think there was a nastiness to his outlook which was compounded by his wife Alice, who had this very paranoid view of almost anything, people were out to get her. In fact, she told me the FBI was bugging her, and the FBI could do nothing right.
LAMB: Why would she feel that way?
KESSLER: I think it has to do with her mind-set, that that's the kind of personality she is. She would imagine all kinds of things. For example, she kept saying and Sessions kept, apparently, ratifying that Ron McCall, this low-level security agent, had been found by her in their bedroom without their permission. That was just a total fabrication. It never happened. The FBI internal investigators looked into that, and they found that there was a previous incident involving his predecessor who had gone to their house with Sessions's permission to change the code on the two-way radio in his bedroom. She came home and saw him and he said that Sessions had said it was okay and that was it. But she made it into this great conspiracy involving Ron McCall, who had never done anything wrong except to question some of the abuses that she tried to get the FBI to engage in.
LAMB: One of the things that's difficult is that Mr. Sessions isn't here to defend himself and neither is she. Did you try at any point to get them to talk to you about these alleged abuses? They still have not been charged, as far as I know.
KESSLER: It's not a criminal matter. There is a range of wrongdoing and abuse that can occur without it being a criminal case, and in this case the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Justice Department wrote a report which confirmed these matters and found that they were even more serious than I thought. When the president fired him, he and Janet Reno said that they had found, based on this report, that he had a serious problem with judgment and that, therefore, he was being dismissed.
LAMB: Has he ever told his side of the story?
KESSLER: Oh, yes. He's been on TV and on radio and been interviewed constantly, in fact.
LAMB: But has he answered the specific charges?
KESSLER: Well, he's addressed them. He's been asked about them. I don't think, in my opinion, that he actually has answered them honestly. He's come up with all these excuses; he's claimed it was a great cabal that was out to get him. It was either the Democrats or the Republicans or it was Hooverites in the FBI or bigots or me, who was being used as a dupe and a pawn of these Hooverites, and it's all fabrication.
LAMB: What did he do when he left? What's he doing now?
KESSLER: I don't know; I think he's looking for a job, basically.
LAMB: How old a man is he?
KESSLER: Perhaps, I'd probably be wrong on this, I think he might be around 60, roughly.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like, and I want to show the cover on the screen. I want to open it up so you can see this picture. Normally authors tell you that it takes nine months to get a book printed after you've finished it, and here you've already got a picture of the new FBI director, who just recently took the oath. How did you get it in here so fast?
KESSLER: I really finished the manuscript a year before, but then I kept updating it and adding to it quite extensively, including 5,000 words on the Waco incident alone. It was already in bound galley form when Clinton fired the director, so at that point the publisher, Pocket Books, decided to crash it and bring it out within three weeks. Within a day or two I wrote an additional portion, which was another 2,000 or 3,000 words about the firing. We put in the latest photographs, and three weeks later it was in the bookstores.
LAMB: Is that the quickest you've ever had any book published?
KESSLER: Oh, yes. I'm used to this very long gestation period, which is frustrating for a former newspaper reporter. Of course, ideally, I would have liked to have had all these abuses in my book and have it all come out at the time the book comes out.
That's what the normal situation would be, but what happened was that after I wrote this letter, the 10-page letter, which I wrote because Sessions didn't initially want to be interviewed about the abuses, the PR people said at first, "This isn't really important enough to bother the director with." Then they said, "Write this letter outlining what you want to talk about, and then we'll see about an interview." So I wrote this 10-page, single-spaced letter outlining the abuses, sent it to the FBI PR people. Unbeknownst to me, they turned it over to the Justice Department for investigation the very same day.
That's what started the investigation. Sessions did finally meet with me but didn't discuss the specifics, wouldn't answer the questions. Obviously, that would have been an opportunity for him to give his side and to stop the abuses, but he didn't. He continued. Then Sam Donaldson, last October, broke the story on ABC of the fact that the Justice Department was investigating Sessions. So it all came out then, or at least that portion of it came out then.
LAMB: How did Sam Donaldson get the story?
KESSLER: I say in the book that he definitely did talk to Alice Sessions before he did his story, so she clearly was at least a source. I don't know where he originally heard about it. But Sessions made a point of saying that the fact that this had leaked was more evidence that it was a great cabal by the attorney general, then William Barr, to get him, but in fact Alice Sessions contributed to it.
LAMB: There's a lot more in this book besides William Sessions. In the time remaining I want to ask you some quick questions. You've titled the Washington office chapter "Deep Throat." What's the point?
KESSLER: That one of the major investigations that the Washington office undertook was the Watergate investigation; that it was, of course, the FBI that did the investigation of Watergate that resulted in the convictions. Woodward and Bernstein did a fantastic investigative job both getting leaks out of that investigation and doing their own job, but it was actually the FBI that did the main investigation.
LAMB: You say at one point that two names have been surfaced as who Deep Throat is published that one of them was Hugh Sloan, and I can't remember the other one. Maybe you can.
KESSLER: Fred Fielding was another one.
LAMB: That's not the name you had in here, but the point I wanted to ask you about is, did you feel when those names were published that it got widespread publicity, or did you just pick up on a story that didn't get much mention about who Deep Throat is?
KESSLER: There'd been a number of names floated.
LAMB: I'm sorry. It was Judy Hoback, a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Re-election of the President. You reference an AP story in 1992.
KESSLER: Yes, the point of that was simply that, as Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their book All the President's Men, they had a number of sources. Deep Throat was one of them, but everyone became fixated on that because of the name. And yet there were other sources who've since come forward and been identified. Hugh Sloan was one of them, and nobody cared because they didn't have a great name. Deep Throat was very important, but there were other important sources as well.
LAMB: You dedicate the book, "For Pam, Greg and Rachel Kessler." Who are they?
KESSLER: My wife Pam and my daughter Rachel and my son Greg.
LAMB: How old are the kids?
KESSLER: My son is 26; he's an artist in New York. My daughter Rachel is 24 and she's at the Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau.
LAMB: Doing what?
KESSLER: She's a news assistant and writing stories on the side as well and hoping to be a reporter.
LAMB: Does your wife work?
KESSLER: She is an author also. She's a former Washington Post reporter now writing books. She wrote a book about the spy sites of Washington, and she's writing a novel now.
LAMB: And Pocket Books, who are they?
KESSLER: That's part of Simon & Schuster. They like to be identified as just Pocket Books and not Simon & Schuster because they are almost in competition with each other. But my editor there is Paul McCarthy, who really had a lot to do with getting this book out and making it what it is.
LAMB: In the back you have 504 notes. You did it in kind of a different way. You actually go from one to 504 instead of doing it by chapter. Was that your idea?
KESSLER: Yes, with WordPerfect it's much easier to just go like that, chronologically, and I think it's easier for people to pick out the notes that way.
LAMB: How many interviews did you do for this book?
KESSLER: There were 314 people interviewed, mostly agents who were current _some former agents, some other employees as well.
LAMB: Did you interview them on audio tape?
KESSLER: Yes, everyone except for a few very sensitive ones were tape recorded with people's permission.
LAMB: What did you do with the tape?
KESSLER: It's in a bank vault.
LAMB: What are you going to do with that?
KESSLER: I usually keep it for several years and then rerecord for the next book.
LAMB: Is there another book under way already?
KESSLER: Yes, but if you don't mind, I'd like to keep that quiet. It's about another very secretive, very powerful institution, and it will be out next year.
LAMB: Investigative reporting obviously is your thing. Do you have any idea where you first got interested in that part of journalism, investigative reporting?
KESSLER: I recall my temple newspaper doing a story about the blue laws of Massachusetts and quoting a number of clergymen as saying that even they didn't think that they were necessary. I remember that as being something that I liked to do because it contributed to public understanding, perhaps would lead to some reforms, got to the heart of the truth in this particular case. So that was a very minor example.
Then when I was on my college paper at Clark, I did a story about discrimination against blacks, they were called Negroes in those days, in rental housing. To do that I would call various people who had advertised their homes for rent, and I would say, "Is it still open?" and they would say, "Yes." I would say, "By the way, my roommate is black. Is that a problem?" and 60 percent said, yes, that would be a problem. That led to quite a few investigations in Massachusetts, so things like that sort of whetted my appetite. I liked to get involved in controversial things but more so to get to the truth.
LAMB: One new thing that I learned in here was that if you're an agent and you're gaining access to, I'm not sure what building or what place you look into something, and they read your eyes. What's that?
KESSLER: It's an optical scanner which detects the pattern of blood vessels in your eye, guess in the retina or someplace and each person has a unique pattern. They record that in the computer, and then in order to gain access to the building you look into a little optical piece which senses the same pattern. If you're the same person, it lets you in.
LAMB: There's a lot more and we only have a minute. Can you give us, to finalize this, your attitude about the FBI after spending all this time looking into how it operates?
KESSLER: I have a greater appreciation both for the successes and for the problems and the negative aspect. Before I started this book, I thought they did a pretty good job, but I wasn't aware of all the personnel problems, ranging from agents who would go to wife-swapping parties and sex clubs in Miami, who were married to each other, to a polygraph examiner who fabricated the reports of his examinations and also an FBI agent who was a safecracker for the FBI but was found in the credit union of the FBI at headquarters after hours with the vault open and failed a lie detector test on whether he was there to break in and take the money.
Those are things that I was certainly not aware of, but I also have a greater appreciation for the successes and the amazing techniques that the FBI has. For example, they're taught in training to look for certain body language that might indicate whether a person is lying or not, and I've tested it and I think it generally seems to work. And that is, if you ask a right-handed person a question and that person looks to the right, invariably he is genuinely trying to tell the truth. If you ask someone, "Who was your second or third grade teacher in school?" they'll search their mind and go off to the right if they're right-handed. If they're left-handed, it's the opposite. But if they're right-handed and they look to the left, then they are lying. That part is harder to test because you don't know if a person is lying or not, but the other part I've tested.
LAMB: The rest you're going to have to find in the book itself. Ron Kessler is the author, and the book looks like this. It's called The FBI. Thank you very much for joining us.
KESSLER: Thanks, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.