By Peter Baker and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
President Bush's chief terrorism adviser announced yesterday that she is stepping down early next year, the latest in a series of high-level exits from the White House as the Bush presidency heads toward its final year.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, has managed the White House response to all manner of natural disasters and extremist threats over the past 4 1/2 years. "We are safer today because of her leadership," Bush said.
Townsend, 45, has been a key player in Bush's circle, earning his trust despite initial Republican suspicion because of her work in the Clinton Justice Department. A former mob prosecutor, she impressed White House colleagues with a hard-nosed style that allowed her to talk tough with Arab royals and skydive with Navy SEALs. She oversaw the response to the London terrorist bombings and the recent California wildfires, helped tighten airline security procedures, restructured the nation's intelligence apparatus and led a White House review of its anti-terrorism campaign.
In an interview, Townsend expressed pride in what she called the administration's "extraordinary record" of security changes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but said she is ready to pursue private-sector opportunities. She expressed regret at not presiding over the capture or death of al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. "I would be lying if I didn't say I would be disappointed if I weren't there when it happened," she said.
Townsend is following other prominent Bush aides out the door, including Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Tony Snow, Sara M. Taylor and Harriet E. Miers. White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush and Townsend had "conversations over the past several months" about her plans. "Obviously, none of us would have wanted Fran to leave service," Perino said. Townsend "dedicated 110 percent of her time and effort to making sure that American citizens could live free from terror."
A Long Island native, Townsend graduated from American University and the University of San Diego's law school before joining the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Her work on Mafia cases drew the attention of then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who hired her as a prosecutor. After moving to the Justice Department in Washington, Townsend worked closely with then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
During the Clinton years, Townsend found herself in the middle of a struggle over the line between intelligence and criminal prosecution. As gatekeeper for intelligence wiretap requests, her office fought efforts to invoke the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in matters that could result in criminal cases, fearing that prosecutors would use warrants under that law instead of amassing the evidence needed to meet the more difficult threshold for obtaining a criminal wiretap.
Later commissions called that policy "The Wall" and said it blocked the full cooperation needed to track suspected terrorists on U.S. soil. Townsend later said that she fought "tooth and nail" against information-sharing restrictions.
After John D. Ashcroft took over the Justice Department, Townsend was shuffled off to the low-profile post of intelligence chief for the Coast Guard. But then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice brought her to the White House in 2003, and she bonded with the president. "He turns to her as a kind of go-to person," Rice once said.
Townsend said she timed her departure just after the new year to be "least disruptive" for the nation, citing concern about a heightened terrorist threat last summer and attention to this year's Sept. 11 anniversary. She said her focus now is on the administration's "especially great obligation" to prepare for the transition of power after next November's election.
"We know that al-Qaeda views these periods with a particular focus," Townsend said, citing the Madrid train bombings before Spain's 2004 elections and failed car bombings in Britain shortly after Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in June. "We will be prepared to begin that transfer to a new president and his or her team beginning right after the election."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.