The Ripon Forum

Volume 44, No. 2

Spring 2010 Issue

“It’s Not Over”

By on October 24, 2014

Q&A With Fran Townsend

Frances Fragos Townsend served as Assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and chaired the Homeland Security Council from May 2004 until January 2008. She previously served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from May 2003 to May 2004.

Prior to serving the President, Ms. Townsend was the first Assistant Commandant for Intelligence for the U. S. Coast Guard. Before that, Ms. Townsend spent 13 years at the U. S. Department of Justice under the administrations of President George H. W. Bush, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.

She served in a variety of senior positions including Counsel to the Attorney General for Intelligence Policy.  Ms. Townsend began her prosecutorial career in 1985, serving as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York.

She is currently a partner at Baker Botts LLC, where her focus is on Global Security, Corporate Risk and Litigation.

The Forum recently spoke with her about the ongoing effort to keep America secure and the Obama Administration’s record in this regard.


RF:  Has the United States lost its sense of urgency in the war on terror?
FT: We are in this regard a victim of our own success. We are rapidly approaching the tenth anniversary of September 11th, and because there hasn’t been a successful attack inside the United States, I fear that people take the wrong lesson from that.  I fear that the lesson they take is that the enemy has receded — has lost its determination and will to attack us — and basically there is no need for the investment in our intelligence and military capabilities.

The problem is, and what those who are still in the fight realize, is the failed attacks — the failed Christmas Day bomber — are symptomatic of what is a continuing determination by our enemies in Al Qaeda to attack and kill Americans. You look at the continuing increase in terrorist activities in places like Yemen and Somalia, the use of Americans like Jihad Jane and Zazi Najibullah, and I worry that Americans cannot afford the luxury of believing that this war is over. It’s not over.  This is an enemy that thinks in terms of millennia. And frankly, often times the Congress and the public and we all think in terms of days, weeks, months. They think in terms of hundreds of years, which is evident by Al Qaeda’s stated desire to reestablish the Caliphate.

The problem is, and what those who are still in the fight realize, is the failed attacks … are symptomatic of what is a continuing determination by our enemies in Al Qaeda to attack and kill Americans.

So this continues to be a very serious problem, and we cannot afford to reduce our commitment to intelligence, law enforcement and the U.S. military.

RF: What is your overall assessment of the Obama Administration’s record with regard to homeland security?
FT: The President stated after the Christmas Day attempted bombing that the system didn’t work the way it was supposed to. He was clearly both angry and disappointed.  I worry whenever you’re in power — regardless of Republican or Democratic Administrations — there is always more to do than you can get done in any 24-hour period, which means that priorities are very, very important.

Of course, if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority. And so while the President is staying focused at the moment on things like health care and the potential for immigration reform, I worry that we see growing threats overseas that require real commitment and real attention. Iran is determined to obtain a nuclear weapon. Israel is threatened on all sides, upon all borders and with the Palestinians. Look at our ally in Saudi Arabia, whose neighbors are Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia across the Red Sea, and who has more than 60 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.

We really need to pay close attention and support our allies around the world and deal with the threats that we see.  I just came back from the Middle East. I worry that our allies don’t feel confident in our commitment to their regional security.

RF: What about the Homeland Security Department? It’s been seven years since it was established. Is it still having growing pains, or is it starting to function more smoothly?
In fairness, it has had now three secretaries, but I think we are beginning to see it function better.  There are some things they need.  We continue to see greater need for integration.  We continue to see the need for greater information sharing both within the department and across the federal government. These are issues that require constant leadership.

I do think the Secretary has paid attention to building relationships with Muslim-Americans and state and local [officials], all of which is important. We’ve got to be clear that she’s got real priorities on the counter-terrorism side and the law enforcement side that are going to need to be strengthened. Immigration enforcement is one thing that comes to mind.

I worry that last year there were over 26,001 murders in Juarez, which is on the Mexico side of the El Paso border.  As a former Southwest border governor, she understands this problem. And frankly we have to be sure that the Department of Homeland Security is focused on protecting Americans from that level of violence seeping across our Southwest border. 

RF: Generally speaking, do you believe the United States should try terrorists in criminal courts or military tribunals?
It’s difficult to answer the question generally.  Let me say this — there can be an appropriate role for both, but I think the administration, if they want to retain the ability to do both, must be transparent about what standards and criteria they will apply in making the decision about who goes where. Let me give you a couple of examples, because I think it will make more sense.

I do not support a criminal trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 bomber. I don’t believe, given the circumstances that led to his capture, that he should be entitled to the Constitutional protection of Americans who violate criminal law.  I don’t think we ought to be treating them the same. 9/11 was an act of war and must be treated as such. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re entitled to some level of due process, which they can get in the military tribunals. The Attorney General, when asked about this very notion, has said that we’ll read bin Laden his Miranda Rights to his corpse.  Well, it’s all very cute and sort of snide but it doesn’t answer the question – “What happens?”

I do not support a criminal trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 bomber. … 9/11 was an act of war and must be treated as such.

And we’ve seen General McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan, was clearly uncomfortable with that because he made a statement saying he remained focused on capturing bin Laden.  Frankly, what it doesn’t answer is — what happens if you do catch him alive?  And to come back to my point, we have a right to know what standards the administration will apply in deciding which venue they are going to use. And we don’t know that right now.

You know, I was in the department during the Clinton Administration when the East Africa Embassy bombers were tried in Lower Manhattan.  And that worked fine.  But the circumstances of their capture and confinement were entirely different.  I’m not suggesting a criminal trial can’t work. But I think you need to be very clear about the criteria used for making those decisions.

RF: Is Al Qaeda stronger or weaker today than it was on 9/11?
I think the Al Qaeda core — the central command — is weaker. The current administration has continued the policy of the Bush Administration in terms of the use of lethal predator attacks in the tribal areas, targeting known Al Qaeda operational leaders, which has been incredibly effective at degrading Al Qaeda’s central capability. That said, what we are seeing is a transformation of the threat.

We see individuals who self-radicalize or who are merely loosely affiliated and get their inspiration from Al Qaeda.  They use the internet, they use preachers like Al Awlaki in Yemen, and those sorts of individuals are much more difficult … the Jihad Janes are much more difficult to uncover and disrupt.

And so while I think that the Al Qaeda core is weaker, we face a different kind of threat which is, in many ways, more difficult to target.


RF: What one area worries you the most with regard to our security and the potential for another attack?
The federal government is the only place where we can really target what I call the low probability/high consequence events like a weapon of mass destruction. For that reason alone, that must continue to be a focus of the federal government. We know Al Qaeda has stated its intention to use a weapon of mass destruction if it can obtain it. So we have to continue to focus our intelligence and law enforcement community on that threat.

We know Al Qaeda has stated its intention to use a weapon of mass destruction if it can obtain it. So we have to continue to focus our intelligence and law enforcement community on that threat.

But my current worry, frankly, and the more immediate concern that I have, is about the high probability/low consequence event – the other end of the spectrum, if you will – which is the individual suicide bomber. We’ve degraded Al Qaeda’s overall capability and so they’ve had difficulty trying to launch a spectacular, big attack with multiple, simultaneous events.  But what that means is now you worry about the “underwear bomber” and the Zazi case with backpacks bombs on subway trains. And I think that underscores our need for a stronger, better relationship with our state and local partners, because those are the people on the frontlines when it comes to the individual one-off type of attacks.

And we’ve got to be sure that we are sharing information with them, getting information to them, helping them to prepare, because that type of attack is going to happen in those communities and we really owe them the necessary information to stop it and the resources if they can’t stop it to respond appropriately.

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