Frances Fragos Townsend wanted an answer.
The government's senior terrorism officials were poring through intelligence reports last summer suggesting that New York's financial district was being targeted by al Qaeda. The question at hand was whether to raise the nation's terrorism threat level to orange.
Asa Hutchinson, then an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, recalled that he deferred to his absent boss. But Townsend, the top White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, had a higher authority to invoke. "You don't understand," she said. "The president will be calling momentarily. We need your position."
From the low-ceilinged, windowless confines of a basement office in the West Wing, Townsend runs President Bush's far-flung campaign against terrorism. Her two predecessors were four-star generals who brought decades of experience to the fight. Townsend, 43, a former mob prosecutor, has a different credential -- the president's ear.
Just a little over two years ago, she had never met Bush and was viewed with suspicion by the inner circle of a tribalistic White House that does not easily accept outsiders. But the hard-charging Townsend has parlayed a succession of powerful patrons into one of the government's most important jobs. Along the way, in a city where partisan lines are rarely bridged, she has transformed herself from confidante of then-Attorney General Janet Reno to a confidante of George W. Bush.
In many ways, Townsend is the perfect match for a leader who sees the battle with al Qaeda as a black-and-white struggle against radical outlaws. At a time when experts in and out of government complain that the White House is more focused on killing and capturing Osama bin Laden's inner circle than the broader task of countering a rapidly metastasizing global jihad movement, Townsend offers Bush a "tactical, one-at-a-time prosecutor, 'get the bad guys' approach," said a former senior official who worked closely with her.
To some critics, that reflects a broader strategy mired in what one former counterterrorism official called "extreme amorphousness." Some longtime counterterrorism professionals complain that Townsend was not prepared for such an extraordinary task. Others nurse resentments that as a Justice Department official she did not do more to ensure that information on terrorist threats was shared more widely inside the government before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But by all accounts, Townsend has impressed Bush with a tough efficiency and a bit of a swagger that resembles his own. Her influence has grown to the point that Cabinet secretaries and agency directors who do not normally return media calls about White House staff members rush to phone with lavish praise for a profile.
"She obviously has the confidence of the president, and that has a huge impact on her ability to influence the process," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. She is the "coordinator, the facilitator, the bridge," as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III put it, between the powerful institutions and clashing egos of a war cabinet. Townsend is both "honest broker" in the many internal debates, said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and "crisis manager" during terrorist attacks such as the recent London bombings.
Among her many mentors, she counts Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, longtime FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and former White House counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke. Even Saudi princes greet her deferentially as Bush's personal emissary, although she had never been to the Middle East before signing on with the president. "He turns to her as a kind of go-to person," Rice said.
In recent months, Townsend has overseen an intelligence reorganization and is now directing the first White House review of its anti-terrorism campaign since the aftermath of Sept. 11, a process intended to broaden the struggle into a new "strategy against violent extremism." It's time, Townsend said in an interview, to "adjust the thermometer."
The first person in her family to graduate from high school, Townsend shows little interest in entertaining questions about her unlikely rise. But unlikely it has been -- mystifying, according to several Democrats who once worked alongside her at the Justice Department and considered her one of theirs, "meteoric" in the words of her best friend.
Townsend is a renowned detail freak, "an accumulator of the facts," as Mueller put it. This obsessive personality is wrapped in a colorful, even flamboyant style. In a city of dark threads, the petite Townsend sat for an interview in a butter-yellow pantsuit. She is a mother of two young sons who manages to make sure her pedicure matches her outfit and maintains her deep tan though she spends each day -- from 6:30 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. -- at the White House.
Even her husband, John -- an arbitrage lawyer, a classmate of Bush's at Andover and Yale, and a registered Democrat -- said his wife confounded expectations for someone in her position. "People tend to be surprised," he said. "They don't expect a woman. They don't expect a young woman. They don't expect a small, fairly attractive young woman. So she surprises people on several layers."
On that fateful Sept. 11 nearly four years ago, Townsend was at home with her 2-week-old son, Patrick, frantically paging her close friend John O'Neill.
O'Neill, a legendary FBI official who led its efforts against al Qaeda before growing disillusioned, had just quit the bureau to head security at the World Trade Center. He assured her he was all right in a text message that arrived minutes before the first tower collapsed, burying him in the rubble.
The day came at a low point in Townsend's career. Until a few months earlier, she had run the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review that decided which cases merited supersecret intelligence wiretaps, work that took her inside al Qaeda cases, such as the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.
She also became a key adviser to Reno, acting in her own words as a "back channel" between O'Neill and the attorney general, briefing her multiple times a day during a crisis. "Reno would call at all hours of the day or night from her office," Townsend's husband remembered.
"She was very close to Janet," Reno deputy Eric H. Holder Jr. said. "Not just professionally. Clearly there was a personal dynamic to it."
Townsend had arrived at Justice headquarters a few years earlier under the patronage of Reno's criminal chief. She is a native of Wantagh, Long Island, the daughter of a Greek American roofer and an Irish American bookkeeper. She rushed through American University in three years, then the University of San Diego law school. Her first job was at the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Early work on mob cases led Rudolph W. Giuliani to hire her in the U.S. attorney's office in New York; the future mayor recalled that "she was exactly like today -- very, very smart. Very much in charge."
After returning to Washington in late 1993, Townsend caught Reno's attention at the department's daily 8:30 a.m. senior staff meetings, recalled a former top aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She was very 'we'll take care of it' in those meetings. She understands the principle that you say 'We'll take care of it' even if you have no clue how you'll actually take care of it."
By the late 1990s, Townsend was a fixture. "Fran would be back-channeling to Janet," the former aide said. "Things would be inked and decided. And Fran would go off to Janet and things would be decided the other way."
Her office would be a focus of controversy after Sept. 11. As the gatekeeper for intelligence wiretap requests, Townsend's office fought efforts to invoke the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in matters that could result in criminal cases, fearing that prosecutors would use such surveillance to circumvent the more difficult threshold for obtaining a criminal wiretap. In practical terms, the result was what commission reports called "The Wall," fencing off investigators from potentially useful information about suspects on American soil.
In an example cited by a bipartisan congressional commission, Townsend refused to endorse a secret intelligence wiretap on Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee because the FBI's interest in the case was "way too criminal." (She told the panel she did not recall making that remark but did not deny conveying such a point.) Townsend in recent years has said she fought "tooth and nail" against information-sharing restrictions. But three former senior advisers to Reno said they knew of no such examples. "She was one of the leading defenders of the famous Wall," one of them said. "She was an assiduous defender of the rules."
When Bush came into office, senior Justice officials were told by incoming Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's team that Townsend was one of those slated to go. They also mentioned complaints about her by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, at the time head of the secret-wiretap court. "It was clear she was not a favored person by folks who were about to take over running the department," said a Reno adviser who spoke with them. "It had to have been a political thing: 'Anybody who could be this close to Reno, we don't want.' "
In the end, Townsend said, her departure was "an agreed-upon thing." "When John Ashcroft came in, there was no doubt in my mind he might decide to put in his own team, so I made that offer" to resign, she said. "Did they fire me? The answer is absolutely not. . . . I was ready to go, they were ready to put in their own team."
By that sad September morning, she was on maternity leave from her decidedly low-profile new job as intelligence chief for the Coast Guard. "We thought it was a nice, friendly place for someone expecting her second child," her husband said.
After spending the day as a "communications hub" for O'Neill's worried friends, Townsend turned her focus to the Coast Guard. The agency was not legally part of the "intelligence community" and not entitled to share sensitive information. Working from home, she helped the Coast Guard get added to intelligence legislation and transformed the agency's priority from South American drug-smuggling to the vulnerability of America's ports.
The next leap came in spring 2003, when two Townsend patrons urged Rice to hire her at the National Security Council. Both Clarke, the publicity-savvy former counterterrorism chief who later criticized Bush for failure to pay early enough attention to the al Qaeda threat, and Gen. John A. Gordon, at the time Bush's homeland security chief, lobbied for Townsend.
"They used all the right adjectives," Rice recalled. "Smart, tough, persistent, which is important. . . . Somebody who will not let anything slip past her."
It was a controversial hire. Political hands in the White House worried about her past as a Democratic appointee. Republicans on Capitol Hill circulated a stinging memo with details of her connection to the Wall. National security veterans worried, as one career official who worked with her put it, "Is she senior enough for this?" Columnist Robert D. Novak wrote that Reno's onetime protege could turn out to be an "enemy within."
At the time, Townsend told an interviewer she had volunteered to resign. But by December, she was coordinating government response to terrorism scares that led to the grounding of holiday season flights from Europe. She had also bonded with the president.
On Christmas Eve, Rice recalled, "She said to the president, 'I'll call you tomorrow morning,' which was Christmas morning. And he said, 'Yeah, do that.' And then he thought about it and said, 'But when are you going to open your presents?' . . . She said, 'Don't worry, we'll find a time.' " That May, just a year after arriving in the White House, she was promoted to head both counterterrorism and homeland security offices. "There's a toughness to her," said former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge. "There's an intensity level to get the job done."
In the months since, she has served as the administration's public face defending its controversial election-season decision to raise terrorist threat levels and as Bush's envoy to inspect Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. When a presidential commission headed by senior U.S. District Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) recommended sweeping changes in the intelligence community, Bush tapped Townsend to implement them.
"She was very tenacious about forcing people to make the hard decisions," Hadley recalled. She confronted turf-conscious bureaucrats, telling them, as Hadley recalled, "If you're going to accept it, accept it. If you've got problems, what are they and how can we work through them?"
But this quintessential Washington operator enjoys getting out in the field, too. In her office, in addition to the obligatory pictures of her with Bush and the somber aerial view of the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, sits a more lighthearted snapshot. The picture was taken days earlier while she was in freefall at 13,500 feet, clutched in the arms of a Navy SEAL sky diving over San Diego.
The SEAL works with the top-secret team assigned to hunt down bin Laden and other remnants of al Qaeda's leadership that had recently come under attack in the wilds of Afghanistan. Townsend had flown to California to get a briefing from what she calls "the tippy end of the spear." Hurtling toward the ground at 126 mph was a side benefit of "pure joy."
Was she scared? She scoffed at the question. "Do I look scared?"
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