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When President Clinton fired FBI Director William Sessions this week, the act cleared some of the troubled air at the agency. But it also left lingering questions about whether the FBI post has lost its independence. The job of FBI chief must not become just another political appointment that changes with each new president.

The concern is underlined by the fact that Sessions is the first FBI chief ever dismissed from the job. Under the law, the FBI director serves a 10-year term that does not coincide with changes in the presidency. The idea is to preserve an independent FBI. Sessions, a Reagan appointee, still had 41/2 years on his term.Other FBI directors had served less than 10 years, but they left on their own for their own reasons. Despite pressure from the Clinton administration, Sessions refused to step down because he felt resigning would be an admission of wrong-doing.

It's true the embattled Sessions had been serving under a cloud. He had been charged by Bush Attorney General William Barr with not paying income tax on the value of limousine trips, using FBI planes for personal journeys, building a phony "security" fence with public money, and other faulty judgment.

But Sessions blamed the accusations on a personal feud with Barr and insisted he was undermined by some of his own FBI agents who were unhappy with an "outsider" heading the agency. In truth, some of the charges lacked much substance.

In some respects, the FBI might be better off with Sessions gone. At least the cause of some bitter infighting has been removed, fairly or not. And Clinton's nomination of federal Judge Louis Freeh appears to be a good choice. As a former FBI agent, Freeh will not be handicapped by the outsider image that dogged Sessions from the beginning.

Yet the concerns raised by firing the FBI director should not be lightly dismissed. Clinton cannot avoid the fact that a Democratic president fired a Republican appointee from a job that is supposed to be outside politics. A dangerous precedent has been set. This is especially troubling since the same sort of thing happened in the botched firing of the nonpartisan White House Travel Office staff.

Whether Sessions was the best man for the FBI job is not the issue. Now that there is a precedent for a new administration to dump the old FBI chief, what's to stop it from happening again at the next change in White House leadership? The FBI is left on shakier ground than it used to be.