Exit Interview: Frances Townsend

On the day the White House announced her impending resignation, Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush's top counterterrorism adviser, said the country is still facing a "very serious and continuing threat from Al Qaeda" that will only become worse if Congress does not pass a controversial measure giving the U.S. government expanded surveillance powers.

Calling some of the arguments against the White House-backed eavesdropping bill "ridiculous," Townsend told NEWSWEEK that the intelligence community badly needs the new law to continue monitoring communications of suspected terrorists. A temporary measure passed by Congress last summer, dubbed the Protect America Act, is due to expire next February. "This is one where partisan politics is playing a role," said Townsend about the failure of Congress to reauthorize the measure to date. "The substance is absolutely clear. We need this."

The White House announced Monday that Townsend will be stepping down in January after four and a half years as the president's chief adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism issues. The move is the latest in a wave of administration resignations over the past few months that have included political adviser Karl Rove, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president—and, most recently, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes. Townsend's exit took some officials by surprise—if only because Chief of Staff Josh Bolten was widely reported to have given the entire White House staff a strict edict a few months ago: either resign by Labor Day or stay on until the president's term expires in January 2009.

But Townsend, 45, with two children, ages 6 and 12, called Bolton's edict "an urban myth" and said that it was never communicated to her. In any case, she said, "my job doesn't lend itself to artificial deadlines." In fact, she added, she had been discussing her resignation with Bolten and President Bush for some time, and she concluded that now was the best moment for her to announce it. After 23 years in public service—including a lengthy stint as a federal prosecutor and then as a top counterterrorism adviser in Janet Reno's Justice Department—Townsend said she now wants to pursue opportunities "in the private sector," most likely in a job performing "global risk" assessments for financial services companies or other international businesses.

Townsend said today that while "there is no perfect time" to leave, she feels strongly that "the country is safer" than it was before September 11, in part because of efforts President Bush has made to restructure the intelligence community, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and other steps.

Yet just last July (when Congress was first debating the expanded surveillance bill), Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made headlines by saying that he had a "gut feeling" that the country might get attacked again over the summer. Asked how that comment squared with her assertion today that the country was safer, Townsend said that Chertoff's comments were a "veiled reference" to the impending release of a new National Intelligence Estimate last summer—which concluded that Al Qaeda's core organization was reconstituting itself in the tribal areas in northwest Pakistan. That threat was still serious, Townsend said. "There is going to be a serious and continuous threat for many years," she said. "If that was the test, I would be here until my old age."

While she may tout the Bush administration's progress in the war on terror, Townsend has had a few rough patches of late. On a trip to the Persian Gulf last month, she was embarrassed to discover that the government of Yemen had released a top suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole—just a few days after she had met with the country's president and delivered a letter from President Bush praising his cooperation in the war on terror. On the same trip Townsend visited Saudi Arabia, where, according to some reports, she raised recent concerns from the U.S. intelligence community that the country is still serving as a source of funding for Al Qaeda and other terror groups. Townsend acknowledged Monday that there are continuing concerns about "financial flows out of Saudi Arabia," but says "the Saudis have made a good deal of progress."

The question that Townsend and the White House now face is whether the progress on that, and on many other fronts, has been sufficient to satisfy the country—especially given the upcoming election season. No word yet on who will be Townsend's replacement.