A skillful survivor
It sure felt like a heart-stopping moment. On August 1, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the color-coded threat alert level because of new intelligence pointing toward an al Qaeda plot to attack major financial institutions. But when word leaked out that the intelligence was old, raising skepticism about the supposed threat, the White House benched Ridge and dispatched a very different kind of messenger to try to shore up the administration's shaken credibility. Petite, blond, expensively dressed, and telegenic to boot, Frances Fragos Townsend is a far cry from the rumpled suits and ramrod-straight law enforcement types who typically work the Washington terrorism beat.
For a few days back then, Townsend was everywhere. She has largely shunned the media spotlight since, but inside the administration, her role has grown. It is Townsend who has led the government's response over the past year to numerous terrorism-related threats and crises, first as deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, then as President Bush's new adviser for homeland security. Now, as George W. Bush prepares to resume his second-term cabinet shuffle, Townsend may be headed for a bigger job, perhaps even homeland security secretary if Ridge opts to step down.
Survivor. To many old Washington hands, the casting is stunning. A registered Republican, Townsend, 42, is a holdover from the Clinton administration, where she served as Attorney General Janet Reno's trusted but controversial intelligence adviser. She was so controversial that Reno's replacement, John Ashcroft, dropped Townsend from the top intelligence job, but now she's back in power--big time. "There's this huge head scratch to the whole thing," says a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. "How can this crowd of people who are all about, 'Oh, you've got to be a true believer,' let her into the fold and allow her to reach this incredible height?"
The answer depends on who's supplying it. Townsend has an abundance of fans and critics. "She is able to separate wheat from chaff," says Deputy Attorney General James Comey, an unabashed admirer. "There's a tendency in the counterterrorism arena, because of the stakes and because of people's worries about making mistakes, not to prioritize among pieces of information. Fran Townsend has the ability and the courage to say: 'This is important; this is not important. Focus on the important thing.'"
Townsend's critics, unsurprisingly, don't see it quite that way. "She's a trip; she's one of the most ambitious people I've met," says a former Bush administration official. "She's always sucking up."
Townsend credits her success to tenacity. "Nobody could be more surprised than I," she said in an interview, "that I wound up here." Townsend is the only child of Irish-Catholic parents from Long Island. Neither parent finished high school, and they separated when she was a teenager. Townsend's mother, an office worker, helped to push her daughter through law school. But Townsend was also close to her father, a roofer and World War II veteran.
Townsend's career began as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, but it took off when she moved to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, where she began prosecuting corporate and mob cases for Rudolph Giuliani. Comey, a young prosecutor there, remembers the disappointment of some of Townsend's witnesses when he was asked to take over one of her Mafia cases. "You know," he says, laughing, "they were all depressed when I became their handler, and I don't think it's because I'm any less attractive. It's just that she had a great rapport with people--great people skills."