Fran Townsend, whose resignation as White House counterterrorism chief was announced today, has been the glue that has kept the intelligence community working cohesively.
According to the mythology in the media, the members of the intelligence community are not on speaking terms. The FBI and CIA, in particular, are said not to talk to each other. But at least once a day, Townsend participates in a secure video conference with all 16 members of the intelligence community, including the FBI and CIA.
Based at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., the conference dissects the latest threats. Intelligence officials discuss which threats are most ominous and parcel out leads to each agency. Meanwhile, some 200 analysts from the CIA and FBI sit side-by-side 24 hours a day at the NCTC analyzing threats.
The 5-foot-tall former organized crime prosecutor became assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism in May 204. She meets with President Bush every morning. Despite having small children, she has often been seen working on Christmas Day. Townsend is known to utter expletives when she encounters foot dragging and will cut people off in mid-sentence if she thinks they are not giving her the straight scoop.
At the same time, says an FBI counterterrorism official, “She understands our business and is completely supportive of the intelligence community.”
The daughter of a Greek-American father who was a roofer and an Irish-American mother who was an office manager for a construction company, Townsend was raised in Wantagh, Long Island.
At age 11, Townsend wrote letters to her priest, bishop, cardinal, and finally the Vatican asking to be an altar boy. Turned down, she tried to sneak into Mass in a borrowed robe, before her priest caught her.
Townsend was the first in her family to finish high school. Because money was tight, she took an accelerated course load in college and worked as a waitress. She graduated cum laude from American University in 1982 and received a law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1984.
A frightening incident at her college dorm room, where she was physically threatened by a man who was let off with little more than a warning, led to her interest in becoming a prosecutor.
After law school, she prosecuted Gambino crime-family members for the U.S. attorney’s office in New York City under Rudolph Giuliani. She went on to take a high-level position at the Justice Department.
As someone who was involved in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and at the Justice Department in the investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Townsend says she has seen changes that have been remarkable.
“The most important thing has been an overall strengthening of the intelligence community,” Townsend has said. “It’s intelligence reform, it’s greater resources in human intelligence, it’s the transformation of the FBI, it’s the Patriot Act, and the technical tools like the NSA terrorism surveillance program and the financial program. The sum of these changes is greater than the parts.”
Now, the U.S. is on the offense.
“It’s so much more effective than waiting until something blows up and then coming in afterwards to try and piece together, from what you find, what happened historically,” she says. “Almost every single one of our major disruptions has resulted from some understanding or lead information, intelligence that we got from somebody inside the organization. It’s really classic, going back, getting somebody who can basically explain to you what’s going on behind enemy lines. And in that regard, this war isn’t different from sort of traditional wars. It’s a different kind of fight but in that regard, that concept of getting into the enemy’s mind and understanding their objectives is the same.”
The sweeping changes in the intelligence community have paid off. Since 9/11, some 5,000 terrorists have been rolled up by the FBI and CIA. That is a major reason we have not been attacked in more than six years.
What has most frustrated Townsend is stories in the media disclosing operational secrets that are not abuses.
“It never fails, when we see an unauthorized disclosure, that we suffer from it,” Townsend says. “You know people often say the terrorists assume we’re tracking them. But it’s different when you have government sources coming out and either confirming it, or you have the details of it, and how we do it, published. We find that after these disclosures, the enemy shifts their tactics around based on what they learn we are doing.”
Calling the leaks “devastating,” Townsend says, “It’s not just a question of you’re putting individuals at risk. The real risk is to the lives of Americans who may suffer an attack because we couldn’t stop it, because the source was taken out. When a technical program is compromised, literally hundreds of millions of dollars are lost because a technique that’s been invested in over many years is no longer productive.”
The disclosures impair the morale of FBI and CIA personnel who are trying to protect the country from another attack.
“My responsibility is to help the president make good decisions to protect the American people,” Townsend says. “The leaks make my job that much harder, and they make me not only frustrated but angry, because leaking classified material when no abuse is involved puts us all at risk.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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