Terror Watch: Top Terror Jobs Unfilled

The Bush administration has been rebuffed in its efforts to find a high-profile candidate to fill the top White House counterterrorism post.

The failure to find a successor to Frances Fragos Townsend, who resigned last January as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, has frustrated White House aides, given the significance the Bush administration has attached to the job. The position involves coordinating antiterrorism and homeland security efforts throughout the government and chairing the Homeland Security Council, a domestic counterpart to the National Security Council that President Bush created after the September 11 attacks.

Among those who have turned down the job—or made clear they weren't interested in replacing Townsend—are retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former chief of U.S. Central Command, and retired Adm. James Loy, former Coast Guard commandant and deputy homeland security secretary, according to three sources knowledgeable about the issue who, like others quoted in this article, asked for anonymity when discussing White House personnel moves. (Neither Abizaid nor Loy responded to requests for comment.) The sources said most of the top candidates the White House contacted expressed little interest in signing on so close to the end of President Bush's second term. "It's a friggin' embarrassment," said one source who is involved in the recruitment process. The source noted that Townsend announced her resignation last November but didn't leave the post until January—in part to give the president plenty of time to find a replacement.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel declined to comment on whether high-profile figures like Abizaid had turned down the job, citing standard White House policy of not talking about personnel matters. But he confirmed that the administration is "still in the process" of trying to find a replacement for Townsend. He also noted that Townsend's former deputy, Joel Bagnal, a low-profile former Army colonel, is continuing to serve as acting homeland security adviser.

Asked at a news conference three weeks ago whether the failure to find a replacement for Townsend has made the country "less safe," Bush testily replied that Bagnal was "a real good guy" and a "fine professional" who "knows what he's doing." Some administration officials say Bagnal may end up being offered the post by default. But they note that he is little known inside the government and lacks the clout or stature of Townsend, a savvy inside operator. That could make it far more difficult for him to convene high-level meetings and move issues to the top of the White House agenda. It could also handicap the administration in the event of another terrorist attack or natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, situations in which the White House's homeland security adviser is formally in charge of formulating a policy response.

The homeland security job is not the only key counterterrorism post the Bush administration is having trouble filling. As NEWSWEEK reported earlier this month, White House officials have spent months searching for a new candidate to head the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The previous chief, retired Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, left for health reasons last October. Several highly experienced candidates have turned down invitations to become NCTC director. The center's widely praised acting chief, Michael Leiter, a former federal prosecutor and Navy pilot, is soon expected to be named NCTC's permanent director, though his nomination—which is subject to Senate confirmation—has not yet been officially announced.

Why is the White House having such trouble filling jobs? Intelligence and counterterrorism officials say that with less than a year to go in the Bush administration, well-known candidates aren't eager to volunteer for a round-the-clock, high-pressure job—especially one that could ruin their reputations if something goes wrong on their watch.

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