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."