Defense Media Network

An Interview With Fran Townsend

Former Assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and Chair, the Homeland Security Council, the White House

Call it drive, initiative, or self-starting survivalist instincts, few people can compare with the experiences that Frances “Fran” Fragos Townsend brings to the table. From prosecuting mafia bosses and their henchmen in New York City under Rudy Giuliani; serving as a senior counsel to then-Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration; becoming the first assistant commandant for intelligence for the U.S. Coast Guard before ultimately becoming the assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and chair of the Homeland Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, the native New Yorker has proven her mettle in the ultimate pressure situations.

Working now as a partner for Baker Botts, LLP in Washington, D.C., and as a frequent CNN and media commentator, Townsend’s reputation for frank talk to people in power is widely known and respected.

In a 2006 profile by Time magazine, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained, “Fran says exactly what’s on her mind. … I’ve heard her say many times in meetings, ‘No Mr. President, that really isn’t getting done.’”

In the same profile, Time’s reporter, Douglas Waller, also revealed that at age 11, the working-class kid from Wantagh, N.Y., would not let the denials of her parish priest, bishop, cardinal, or the Vatican deny her the opportunity to be an altar server at Mass. The only thing that stopped her was a quick priest who caught her trying to sneak into the Mass in a borrowed robe.

That may be the only time she has been stopped in her tracks.

Townsend is recognized internationally for her thinking, analysis, and candor. It was those skills as a non-political civil servant that became prized by the top levels of both the Clinton and Bush administrations and led her to multiple positions of authority and influence in legal circles as well as the national and homeland security communities.

She would have to draw upon those skills and more to deal with everything from the 9/11 attacks; the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; facing down Libyan dictator Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi; all while navigating the politics of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the Middle East, and the most challenging of all, Washington politics and bureaucracies.

100 Years of Women in Law Enforcement: National security, like military and the law enforcement community, has long been dominated by men, but over the past decade and a half, more and more women like yourself have taken on very visible but also very demanding leadership roles. As one of the people who has been part of this leadership evolution, can you describe what it’s been like to have been part of this evolution?

Frances “Fran” Fragos Townsend: You know, it’s an interesting thing because this is not particular to a single political party. I saw it during the Clinton administration. Madeleine Albright was secretary of state. Janet Reno was attorney general. Jamie Gorelick was the deputy attorney general. And you saw it during the Bush administration even more so, frankly. He [President Bush] had a female White House counsel [Harriet Miers]. Condi Rice was national security advisor and then secretary of state. Margaret Spellings was over at Education. You know, you saw very powerful people.

And so now, it’s funny, at varied senior ranks in the political and policy community it kind of seems much more normal that there are women who are competitive and women who are very senior in the ranks of national security.

But, there are still places that we have not seen women leaders. I think we will and … I’m optimistic we’ll see it in my lifetime. The secretary of defense has never been a woman, nor has the director of the CIA, or the director of the FBI. There are places yet to go. While they’re very senior positions, they’re much more operational. And I think that’s a road yet to be traveled for women. I think they will. I think you’ve now got competent, qualified women who’ve got the kind of experience.

I think we’ve just assumed it a natural bias towards men. In the national security trade, some of that is you need women to have the right kind of experience to be truly competitive for those positions. More and more now you see women in senior roles including the career ranks, which you didn’t before, whether that’s at the CIA or the FBI, with the kinds of experience that will position them to be competitive, and I think that’s great.

Do you think there’s a difference between how men and women operate in the national security and homeland security spaces?

I’m going to resist [making an] analogy, because I think we sometimes make most generalizations that aren’t really accurate. I will say this, very often you find women can be not less competitive – because I think they’re equally competitive – but I think approaches can be different. Women can be aware of that getting to the strategic answer, the strategic result, and are less proprietary about how they get there. For instance, men are often very proprietary in how they get there. They do want to get to the strategic result but they tend to be more proprietary about getting there.

What does that mean?

That means, in my experience at least, women are incredibly pragmatic. For instance, who gets the credit? Sure, women want to get the credit when they’ve been part of producing a result, but they’re very willing to share it as long as they can get there. I think that’s an advantage for women because women give credit away because they’re willing to share credit with all those who contributed to the results.

Since the Bush administration and Obama administration and even the Clinton administration that you alluded to earlier have been able to place women in top national and homeland security positions and they’ve performed just as well as men, can we say that proverbial “glass ceiling” has been shattered?

Well, I think Secretary [of State, Hillary] Clinton said it, she put millions of cracks in it. I think it’s a much weaker glass ceiling, but, as I mentioned to you, there are places that women have not gone and it tends to be the more operational, the senior operational jobs [like] the FBI, CIA, and secretary of defense. But I think that we can get there in my lifetime.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you took the job of advising the president on homeland security matters?

I learned the importance of not just working from one position. When you accept a role like that of advising the president, you’re responsible for the federal government and so your focus is very much looking at all the tools of national power across it.

What you realize uniquely is, … in the homeland area as opposed to other aspects of national security, the importance of vertical relationships. That is, all the way from the local sheriff, a rural sheriff, to big major city police departments like the NYPD or LAPD, your real homeland security, including the security of every American, requires relationships not only across the federal government but also across the country, the state and local communities.

I spent a lot of time on that, and not that it was so surprising, but the importance of it can’t be underestimated. This is really about grass roots communication with first responders, understanding their perspective, their needs, and their requirements and then incorporating that into a federal strategy.

I think we did that when I was there [at the White House] and I think during the Bush administration we put a greater emphasis on that than had ever been seen before. I met with sheriffs in the West Wing of the White House. I talked to them about their frustrations and their needs, and we really worked very hard in incorporating them at both the strategic and operational level.

A job like yours is not something that someone just applies for by answering an ad. What skill sets do you have to have to succeed in a position such as an advisor to the president and how do you survive in that grueling environment?

I think people would be surprised that they’re the same skills that are required to succeed in a corporate environment, in a commercial environment, almost in a military environment. It’s got to be mission first. It can’t be about you as an individual. The mission is too important for egos to get too involved.

I mean, it’s got to be that mission. There are no hours to this job. I mean, it’s not as though I could tell you, “oh I worked, you know, 8-10-15-20 hours a day.” I worked as long as it needed me to be there. And the time goes very quickly, so you find you’re working six and seven days a week. You cannot in any way constrain your commitment to the mission and to the position.

So in the end you have to understand that what you do, the president owns the successes and you own failures. That is a fundamental truth about advising the president of the United States. You must be selfless in the success and you must be actually willing to stand up and be responsible for the failure.


What’s the most serious threat to the homeland today and how do we address it?

I wish I could say there was only one that I worry about, but there are two really strategic threats that I see to the country. One involves the safety and security of our cyber infrastructure. It’s so fundamental to our economy, to our military, to our commercial supply chain that I think we must do more and I fear that we’ll wind up coming to a tragic catastrophe to get the nation’s attention on it.

The other one, frankly, is nuclear terrorism. I find that if we go back and look at the past decade, al Qaeda will issue their statement declaring their intentions, and while it may not be immediate, they do act on their intentions, including the September 11 [attacks]. [Osama] Bin Laden issued a fatwa years ago now that said there would be weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations inside the United States. And I worry because it is so unimaginable the consequences of such an attack that we’re not doing enough to take it seriously. I was pleased to see the president talk about this at the Nuclear Safety Summit, but I think we have to see more than these meetings. We must see action and follow-up to those things, particularly efforts at the head of state level. So nuclear terrorism and cyber are the two strategies that I worry most about now.

Over the course of your career, you’ve had the opportunity to interact with a range of leaders from judges, elected and senior government officials, corporate execs, community leaders, military personnel, presidents, and so forth. You’ve also had the opportunity to face down criminals, political backstabbers, and even Libyan dictator Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. Do the same skills work for dealing with all those types of people or are there other skills that you need to draw upon to deal with adversaries?

You know, I think it’s interesting that when you’re dealing with leaders around the world, even in the United States, it’s easy to be taken aback, to be intimidated by it. I think you have to [have] the benefit of really knowing the material, understanding what the objectives are. And you really need to hold your ground.

Now, that doesn’t mean being stubborn. I think it means a willingness to honestly engage. But to do that confidently, you have to really know your stuff.

I would spend tremendous amounts of time preparing to go into meetings, especially with foreign leaders. You have to be at all times respectful. But that, being respectful, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree. You’ve got to be clear about what your objectives are and you’ve got to be willing to listen and understand and be cognizant of the times you have to compromise. You may not reach your ultimate objective in one move, it may require several moves. You’ve got to understand what somebody else’s objectives are.

I used to say I learned everything I needed to know [about] dealing with foreign leaders when I got to the third grade and learned about Venn diagrams.

Remember the overlapping circles and there’s the shaded part in the middle?  Well, each country is one of those circles. We each have our own national objectives. You’re not trying to get them to sign onto your objectives. What you’re doing is looking for that shaded part in the middle of the two circles.

Once you find that and identify that and can come to some sort of common understanding, you try to widen the shaded part and make more.

I think we did that very successfully with our allies when it came to Saudi Arabia in the fight against terrorism.

Does that mean we share a higher percentage of the same objectives? No, but we share complete agreement on a really important one. That’s what I think the current administration is trying to do with the government of Pakistan, and it’s really, really important, and so even when you’re meeting with somebody like Gaddafi, you’re trying to understand what his objectives are and whether you can find any common ground.

Let’s talk about Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. You were the highest ranking U.S. official to meet a man that Ronald Reagan was literally trying to bomb out of his tent. What was that like?

It was extraordinary. Since I met with him, then-Secretary of State Rice … met with him as have others. But at the time, we had successfully swayed his government to give up their WMD program. They had then been – after a very sort of heated debate inside the administration, the then-Bush administration – … taken off the state sponsors of terror list, but we weren’t making the kind of progress that we wanted to make until I was asked to go and deliver a letter from President Bush to al-Gaddafi.

It was a bizarre experience because when we got there, we did not have an appointment. We waited at what was then a temporary American Embassy and I had gone to a series of meetings with other officials from the Libyan government.

We waited and I was going to leave because I didn’t think or know if I would get the meeting, but at the last minute we were granted permission to come meet al-Gaddafi.

I met him at his military base. That’s the same compound, by the way – you mentioned President Reagan – we … bombed during the Reagan administration. When I went, when I was on the military compound, I was driven past the facility that we had bombed, which had special lighting.

My car stopped in front of it. There was nothing said. I then asked the question why we were stopping here and … there was no real answer. They ignored the question.

I then said, “If you’re waiting for me to apologize, that’s not going to happen.” Nothing was said. The car kept moving and I was taken to an … Arab tent where the meeting took place.

I found it interesting because I found al-Gaddafi to be extraordinarily well prepared for the meeting. He knew exactly who I was both personally and professionally. He made sure I knew he knew and he was prepared to engage on concerns that he had about the ongoing bilateral relationship between Libya and the U.S., the details of which are really confidential because I was there not for myself, but for President Bush. But I’m telling you I think it’s important that we just need to continue to engage the Libyan [government].

I have concerns about their relationships and their views. The al-Gaddafi relationship with the King and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a very volatile relationship and frankly is of tremendous concern to me. I think it’s the real task of whether or not they are willing to renounce all acts of terror and interference in other countries and other countries’ foreign policies. And so, that said, I think the way of dealing with those concerns is to continue to engage them and hold them accountable for their actions.

Part of your job, and you alluded to this earlier, is dealing with threats coming from the Middle East, a portion of which is not particularly welcoming to having women serve in roles of leadership much like the ones that you held and those that Secretaries Albright and Rice held and that Secretary Clinton as well as Secretary Janet Napolitano now hold. How did you prepare to deal with that dynamic? Did you experience any pushback in having any of these countries want to go around you because you were a woman?

I had none of that. No experiences like that at all. I’m going to tell you an interesting story. When I was first asked – or was directed – by President Bush to go to Saudi Arabia, I took a series of briefings with the State Department, from the CIA, from the FBI. Time and again I was told this would be a very difficult assignment because of how women are treated there and the fact that it might do more harm than good if the president sent a woman. And so, for the one and only time I did this, I went to President Bush and said to him, “you know, this is too important for the bilateral relationship to risk by sending them a woman and so perhaps you should not send me.”

You know, I did, in a sense, question his decision to send me.

I think it is fair to say that he was irritated with me and then his response to my questioning of him was, “You clearly don’t understand the Saudis. It won’t matter who or what you are. The fact is this is not about you. If I’m sending you, you are my emissary. That’s all that will matter to them. And, so, you’re going.”

Interestingly enough, it turned out he was absolutely right. Not only that, I found it to be actually an advantage because I had all the power of a man in traditional Arab society … at that level of seniority in government and yet they were kind to me in a way that they reserved for women and how they treat women. So, when I was there on official business, I did not wear a hijab or a veil as it was not required, although I did wear it if I was not going to a meeting. If I was going out to a social event, I would wear it just out of respect. But, I really had an incredibly productive relationship. I was treated extraordinarily well, not only with protection but I was welcomed into their homes – not only with the government officials, but with private people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well.

I met many times with President Saleh of Yemen. With the Emir of the UAE [United Arab Emirates], the King of Bahrain and the Crown Prince, so I was received throughout the region. There was nowhere in the region that I was not both welcomed and respected, and not just that, but I was able to actually be productive in advancing the interests of the United States and in a national security position.

Terrorism experts and homeland security leaders including yourself have said it’s not a matter of if we’re attacked but rather a matter of when we are attacked again here in this country. Are you surprised we’ve not been attacked?

Well, yes and no. I am not surprised that we’ve seen the number of attempts we’ve seen, and I am not surprised – because of the extraordinary efforts and capabilities we’ve built since 9/11 – that we’ve been able to thwart many of these attacks. I’m not surprised by the fact that al Qaeda finds themselves with a reduced capability to act inside the United States. After all, we’ve increased our border security, our screening procedures. We’ve strengthened our relationships with our allies around the world in terms of combating terrorism.

That said, I am surprised that besides all of that, you know that the government’s got to be right every time. They’ve [terrorists] only got to get right once.

If they do not have at least some success at launching an attack inside the U.S., I do think that it’s only a matter of time.

I am not saying I find the mistakes we made on the Christmas Day attempted bombing and our inability to identify Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab [the man arrested for attempting to bomb Northwest Flight 253] in advance a concern. They are [of concern]. Our inability to take information that we collect at the State Department or in the intelligence community and turn that into knowledge that we can act on is a disappointment to me and it ought to be a disappointment to the American people given the time, money, and effort we’ve put in to fix that problem.

I have every reason to believe that the Obama administration and the senior people around him were equally disappointed and are acting on that to fix that and correct that. But I’m telling you, that requires an everyday attention. It can’t be that people get distracted by the tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Somebody’s got to pay attention to the information sharing people every single day or you’re going to see further acts and one of them may be successful.

What lessons do you think we still have to learn from 9/11, Katrina, and the other emergencies?

The importance of acting seamlessly in the area agencies. Again, it’s not just across the federal government, but including our state and local partners.

It is frustrating to me that we’re going to come up on the 10th anniversary of September the 11th and our information systems still do not speak to one another. That’s not a technical problem. That’s a policy problem. That’s a leadership failure. They can, and there’s proof that the technology exists which makes [them] perfectly able to … actually seamlessly talk to one another.

It’s a failure of the bureaucracy to submit itself to that, to the system, and I just think the American people. If we have another attack in the United States and information resides in an agency that’s not shared, and working for the good … look at Fort Hood. Information absolutely existed inside the Department of Defense that was not understood and shared with the FBI. Now, we had a number of soldiers as a result of that murdered at Fort Hood. That’s horrible. Imagine attacking American citizens in [a] civilian context where hundreds or thousands die. Americans will not tolerate that.

I don’t think we’ve done enough to solve that problem and God knows I tried while I was in government. I think we made some progress but it’s not nearly enough.

You know Secretary Napolitano from your previous work at the White House as well as your service on DHS’ National Advisory Counsel. Aside from her working in a different administration, how do you see her doing the job of DHS secretary differently from her predecessors Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff?

You know, I think people come into that job probably not appreciating the fact that it is the most difficult job in the government. One, it’s a very large bureaucracy. Two, the DHS secretary’s job goes beyond protecting America’s borders. It has real consequences in local communities and that makes that job all the harder.

I think the secretary has come to appreciate just how difficult it is to communicate what she’s doing in an effective way to the American people. People react slowly to changes in policy that protects their lives, whether it’s screening at airports, or if they don’t like the images that are going to be displayed to an officer at TSA, or if it’s because they’re on a no-fly list. All of these things have implications to everyday American lives and are not necessarily liked.

I’ve known all of the secretaries and each has had different styles of communicating, and I think it’s fair to say that, in my view, we need to do more talking to the American people. Not just amid the crisis; not just when there is news on a policy issue, but … think about immigration reform – that’s a priority to talk about. But [for] lots of issues on an on-going basis, there needs to be more talking with the American people.

Whether it’s Secretary Napolitano or Secretary Chertoff or Secretary Ridge, each one of them I think would tell you we need to communicate more with the American people.

What were the greatest lessons you’ve learned from your career in national and homeland security?

It’s interesting, when you do your job and you make decisions every single day that affect average Americans and after I left government and I did a lot of public speaking, I realized that there’s an incredible sense among communities of support for the mission. Oftentimes the debate is around how do you get there?

What is the path by which you’re going to be successful?

It’s funny, I realize that that’s where you can actually learn a tremendous amount. Not from talking but from listening in local communities and in groups, the interest groups.

I think that we can do more to engage and build the support of the American people for the mission. Why do I think that’s important? Because I think we have got to get away from this notion that your government, which has the responsibility to protect you, can actually successfully execute that mission on its own.

It can’t.

To build the support of the American people requires research. It requires information. And after all, the role of our first responders and DHS employees literally revolves around the communities in which they live and they want to feel proud of what they’re doing. They want to be successful. And so we really have to meet with governors and mayors to have this sense of ownership in the American people through the mission. It’s not just DHS. It’s not just your local police. We all have to have a sense of ownership about the success of that mission. Not just a sense of “oh, who do I blame when it goes wrong.”

What words of wisdom do you have to offer to any young woman who wants to go into the national security arena?

I want to be honest. It’s a very demanding role and I think you have to understand [that] when you go into it in place of some other career choices you can make where it’s easier to have a chance of control of management over your own time.

This really is a complete commitment and you have to understand going in oftentimes you cannot … you don’t have control of your time. But it’s a matter of you’ve got to love the mission. You’ve got to love it enough to make certain sacrifices and you have to be willing to get the buy-in of your family.

I think that a woman now has the good fortune they can have husbands and children, and as we get older we also have the responsibility for our parents. All those things can be managed and you can still have this incredibly exciting career. But it’s important that you’re talking at home about what that requires because it’s not just your commitment: It requires the sacrifice and commitment of your family.

We associate that and we know that with our men and women in uniform. We understand military families by now. I think we understand that that’s also true in this community, in the national security community for civilians. Everybody in the family has got to sign on or you’re not going to be successful.

Look, I’ve been blessed. I feel an obligation to say to you that also includes a nanny. I have a nanny. She’s been with me since my oldest child was born and she’s part of that network. Most professional women, especially in this arena, but not only in the national security arena, will tell you that they had an infrastructure support that includes child care and help at home without which they can’t do it. And so I think women have got to understand to have a successful career, especially in [the] national security community, the pressure of having to do it all yourself and, you know, to be honest with each other that it requires support and that’s okay.

This article was first published in 100 Years of Women in Law Enforcement.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...