Fran Townsend, whose resignation as White House counterterrorism chief was just announced and becomes effective in the new year, has been one of George Bush's best high-level appointments and her departure will be a genuine loss to the West's struggle against radical Islam. Fran, 45, is a former federal prosecutor from New York who, despite her diminutive size -she is five feet tall, blonde, with a lovely smile and a cracker-jack sense of humor, is exceptionally tough and very intellectually able. She has gained the respect of the intelligence community over the past 42 months of her tenure, and has labored to make the community work more smoothly together, despite their natural inclination to silent, intense competition. Fran meets with the president early every morning and plays a significant role in the highly secure live quotidian teleconferences on terrorism that include leaders from 16 different intelligence agencies including the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.
I first heard about Fran from my friends Andy McCarthy, who prosecuted the first Trade Towers bombing case in Manhattan in 1993 (remember the evil "Blind Sheikh") and Louis Freeh, when he was FBI director. The two of them had become close to Fran when they worked with her (and Rudy Giuliani) prosecuting sophisticated La Cosa Nostra cases in New York City. Freeh and McCarthy raved about Fran. You've got to meet her, they said. She worked the 1993 Trade Tower bombing case with Andy and then the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam bombings of the American Embassies with Louis Freeh when he headed the bureau. She worked the USS Cole attack, as well. She was a woman of deep and broad experience and she knew all the players. Fran had been chief of Coast Guard intelligence after working in the Clinton Justice Department but she was no Clintonista. She was strong and principled 'and patriotic. Soon after I heard all this about her, by sheer serendipity, my neighbor Ann Compton, the ABC White House correspondent and her husband Dr. Bill Hughes, called one late afternoon and suggested I stop over for an early, informal Sunday dinner. The only other guests, they said, would be a lawyer named John Townsend and his wife, Fran, the newly appointed Deputy National Security Advisor. Over drinks n the Hughes' comfortable living room, and later over roast beef dinner, Fran Townsend and I hit it off. She, as well as her husband, was funny, down to earth, smart and interesting. Fran and John are the parents of a couple of young kids and, as it turned out, lived only a few blocks from Patricia and me in the Spring Valley section of Washington. I saw and spoke with Fran often after that, and had her as a guest on my radio show about terrorism, Danger Zone.
I read an excellent interview with Fran other day by Ron Kessler, the prolific book author and writer of the Washington Insider for Newsmax. Ron thinks as highly of Fran Townsend as I do. He has collected praise about her from the participants in that teleconference I mentioned above, which sometimes runs a couple of times a day. It is housed at the National Counterterrorism Center, the joint CIA and FBI effort in McLean, Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters in Langley (which is part of McLean) where a couple of hundred FBI and CIA analysts work cheek to jowl 24-hours a day trying to keep our nation safe.
The changes Fran has seen since her appointment in the spring of 2004 have been remarkable. "The most important thing has been an overall strengthening of the intelligence community," Kessler quoted Fran as saying. “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, as Kessler points out, 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. 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…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 in the enemy’s mind and understanding their objectives is the same.”
Fran Townsend made an important point at the news conference announcing that she would be leaving and moving to the private sector sometime in January. She warned that the national elections for president and the congress next year are a logical target for a terrorist attack and that al-Qaeda views the election run-ups as a period of vulnerability. She said she wants to be sure there is no “lag in information sharing” between agencies and the White House.
George Bush has not yet named a replacement for one of his best appointments.