Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, is a self-described worrier.
At a breakfast Monday with reporters she quipped, "If we were going to go through the long list of things that bother me and that I worry about, we would be here for lunch."
Given the life and death issues she oversees, Townsend's concerns are understandable. Her assignment is coordinating efforts to battle terrorists and protect the nation by a host of disperate government actors, including the fledgling Homeland Security Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department.
The youthful and outgoing Townsend is a rarity in Washington – someone who worked in the top reaches of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. President George Bush has entrusted her with a crucial portfolio. During Bill Clinton's presidency, Townsend rose through a series of increasingly influential Justice Department positions and ended up as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno for Intelligence Policy.
Townsend spent much of Monday morning responding to a spate of terrorism related stories that broke over the weekend.
On Saturday, the New York Times website reported that the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said that the war in Iraq had made the overall problem of terrorism worse by fueling a new generation of Islamic radicalism. The document is a consensus view produced by the 16 spy agencies within the US government.
Townsend's response: "It is not clear to me that the headline we saw ... that America is less safe, is actually contained in the NIE. The statements that were leaked, once again it was classified information, and that is always damaging. And secondly, what I would say ... is most damaging, frankly, as the director of national intelligence said yesterday, [is that] it is taken out of context. This was a multi-page report which looked at the course of the developing enemy and [is] not inconsistent with what the president said, that ... this network is changing. We have not only a centralized structure where Al Qaeda is the most dangerous enemy, but we also have these more dispersed networks."
Townsend was asked why the US should stay in Iraq if the war there makes the problem of terrorism worse. Her response: "To leave Iraq would make us less safe. There is no question based on the statements by [Osama] bin Laden and [Ayman] Zawahiri. They very much view Iraq as the central front on the war on terror."
A number of the questions at the breakfast were triggered by the stormy interview Fox News anchor Chris Wallace had with former President Clinton. The interview aired on Fox News Sunday.
During the interview, Clinton said that the current administration "thinks Afghanistan is one seventh as important as Iraq." He also said that if he were president, he would have more than 20,000 troops looking for Osama bin Laden. "I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since. And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him," a visibly angered Clinton told Wallace.
When asked if the Bush administration had misallocated resources in the war on terror by shortchanging efforts in Afghanistan, Townsend responded: "It is not just a question of our allocation of forces, remember we've got NATO and coalition forces there. This is a coalition effort. And yeah, we are satisfied. We are satisfied with the effort there. This has been of primary importance [not only] among our military, but also among our intelligence and law enforcement communities as well."
Townsend said she was offended by some of President Clinton's remarks on Fox News Sunday. When asked why she took offense, Townsend responded: "It is not terribly productive at this stage to spend a whole lot of time looking back. We have the 9/11 Commission Report. We have done that and ... the looking back piece I don't find a terribly fruitful topic of discussion. I think it is unfair to suggest, whatever the agreements or disagreements are between the two administrations in terms of their approach,... that anybody doesn't take this threat seriously, doesn't want to stop the next attack. When I say it offends me, it offends me the notion that anybody wants to see that happen again or isn't doing everything that they believe is legitimately within their power to do. It appeared in the heat of the moment that the president was angry, he felt attacked, and he reacted."
When she was asked about reports, which started in the French press, that Osama bin Laden was either dead or seriously ill, Townsend responded: "The world will be a better, safer place without him however he leaves us, whether that is being brought to justice, being killed, or getting sick. I have not seen any evidence or intelligence to suggest the report is true." Later, Ms. Townsend added, "I can't say anything about his health or his demise because it would require me to get into classified information."
Townsend was asked for an update on the alleged terrorist plot to use liquid explosives to destroy planes traveling between the United Kingdom and the US. Her response: "We have felt mightily constrained in our public comments because of British law. There are Pakistani British citizens and Pakistani immigrants in Great Britain who have come up repeatedly, over and over in terms of these cases. Is that a concern to us? Yes, it is and you can imagine it is even a greater concern to our British allies. Based on my own experience, I will be surprised at the end of the investigation if we don't come to find links back to Al Qaeda, given what we currently know."
Townsend's experience – and rapid rise – is due in part to what she has called her "triple type-A" personality. She is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She went on to graduate with honors from American University with a BA in political science and then earned her law degree at the University of San Diego. Her legal career began in 1985 as an assistant DA in Brooklyn. Three years later, she was hired by Rudolph Giulani in the Manhattan US Attorney's office and focused on white collar crime.
Ms. Townsend returned to Washington in 1993. Early in the Bush administration, she was assistant commandant of the Coast Guard for intelligence. She moved to the White House in 2003 and assumed her current position in May 2004.