A skillful survivor
It wasn't long before Townsend wound up at the Justice Department in Washington. There she spent the next 13 years in a series of high-profile jobs and became Reno's close personal friend and most trusted adviser. "She had an ability to get to the heart of an issue," Reno said in an interview. Although she worked at "Main Justice," as department headquarters is known, Townsend's soul was really attuned to the agency just across the street, the FBI. "She was a wannabe FBI agent; she loved the FBI. She reveled in that," says a knowledgeable source. Townsend developed a unique perspective on al Qaeda because of her close personal friendship with a legendary FBI agent and al Qaeda expert named John O'Neill, who retired from the bureau but lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001, just days after starting his job as security chief at the World Trade Center. Today, Townsend has lots of admirers at the bureau. "I can't think of any door I wouldn't go through with Fran Townsend by my side," says Pasquale D'Amuro, who runs the FBI's New York field office.
Another of Townsend's mentors is former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who encouraged her to accept a sensitive Justice job that turned into a hornet's nest. In 1998, at Reno's request, Townsend became the head of the powerful Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. The OIPR enforces a controversial statute known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the FBI or other agencies can obtain special wiretaps and other search and surveillance warrants to track spies and terrorists. A FISA court meets in secret to approve requests for the wiretaps and warrants. Since FISA warrants are intended primarily to gather intelligence, not prosecute criminals, there was tension and confusion at the time over whether the information they produced could be shared with agents or prosecutors working on criminal cases. Townsend found herself in the middle of that debate over how much of a "wall" should exist between intelligence-gatherers and prosecutors, and her tenure at OIPR remains controversial today. Many FBI agents say Townsend was crucial in obtaining FISA wiretaps, especially during the period of heightened terrorism concerns around the new millennium. But many prosecutors felt that Townsend was less than helpful in making sure the FBI shared wiretap data with lawyers at Main Justice when there was evidence of criminal activity. Townsend believed that the FISA court and its chief judge at the time, Royce Lamberth, would refuse to approve search warrants and wiretaps if they believed too much information sharing was going on and if prosecutors were controlling or directing the intelligence-gathering efforts. One knowledgeable source backs her up and says Townsend "cared very much about following procedures." But others suspect an ulterior motive. Some Justice Department prosecutors felt Townsend wanted to keep the wall up because it kept prosecutors out of national security investigations, leaving more authority in the hands of Townsend and friendly bureau agents.
Whatever the case, there were serious consequences. Both the Government Accountability Office and the 9/11 commission have blamed OIPR in part for the government's intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks. Sources say that OIPR's narrow interpretation of FISA led to misunderstandings and overly cautious behavior by the FBI. As a result, in July and August of 2001, FBI intelligence analysts prohibited their own criminal-case agents from searching for two men on the government's terrorist watch list who they knew had entered the United States. The men later proved to be two of the 19 hijackers. The 9/11 commission said OIPR had become the "sole gatekeeper" of FISA intelligence by arguing that "its position reflected the concerns" of Judge Lamberth. "The office threatened that if it could not regulate the flow of information to criminal prosecutors, it would no longer present the FBI's warrant requests to the FISA court," the report said. "The information flow withered."