President Bush has �fundamentally transformed� the way the country fights the war on terror, Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and counterterrorism, said in an interview.
In effect, Bush operates as the CEO of the war on terror, pushing countries to cooperate, keeping track of terrorists, asking tough questions, and guiding the agencies responsible for combating terrorism.
On the morning of the interview with Townsend in her west wing office, Bush was briefed on a particular piece of intelligence, Townsend said. Bush asked, �Isn�t that the guy that you told me about six months ago?� and gave a related fact, Townsend said.
�It was just extraordinary to everybody in the room, with as much as the president manages and hears and gets facts and information on, he�s got an incredible facility for detail in this area,� she said. �He�s good with names; he�s good with facts; and oftentimes, I think people would be surprised when he is being briefed on something, he will ask operational questions: Are agencies doing particular things to follow up? And so he takes his responsibilities in the terrorism area very personally.�
Despite going over constant threats that come in every day, �I�ve never seen the president ruffled,� Townsend said.
Nor does Bush waver in the face of criticism of his often controversial decisions.
�The president, not just by his words but by his actions and his decisions, has made perfectly clear that first and foremost in his mind is personal commitment to protecting the American people � even if it results in criticism of him personally. That doesn�t get factored in as far as he�s concerned,� Townsend said. �He is of single mind and single focus about preventing the next attack and never letting that happen again.�
In the days before the British took down the terrorist plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, Bush was following the developments while on vacation at the Crawford ranch.
�The challenge there was you didn�t want to let it go too far,� Townsend said. �You can imagine that if something had gone wrong, there�s no question that people would have second-guessed the decisions that were being made.�
What triggered the decision to arrest the terrorists was the fact that the Pakistanis could not locate Rashid Rauf, a dual Pakistani-British citizen, who was believed to be a key player in the plot. When the Pakistanis found him, they arrested him. The British then decided that it was time to move in on the others in the U.K.
No Vacations for Bush
�People talk about the president being at the ranch on vacation,� Townsend said. �I will tell you that, even if no one else had talked to him but me, we occupied a good amount of his time on this U.K. plot by video conference. He was very, very involved in terms of knowing what the details were, knowing what the progress was, what actions we were taking. He was talking to Prime Minister [Tony] Blair. So this was very much a partnership with our British colleagues to disrupt the plot.�
FBI agents immediately began checking any contacts the British terrorists might have had in the United States.
In the end, �While the terrorists were homegrown in Great Britain, there is no doubt in my mind we will find there were some very definite connections back to al-Qaida in Pakistan�s Federally Administrated Tribal areas,� Townsend said.
�This U.K. plot was intended by our enemies to be a second 9/11,� she said. �It was going to be multiple, simultaneous attacks aimed at killing thousands. It�s just chilling to me that, five years later, their determination to kill us is undiminished.�
Bush�s efforts to enlist the cooperation of countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have paid off, Townsend said.
�Prior to 9/11, it would have been unthinkable to most people that you could make an ally out of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia,� Townsend said. �They have become actually critical players in the fight. They have enabled us to be successful in terms of gathering intelligence on real threats. We never would have had that intelligence absent their cooperation.�
Sharing In the Fight
The creation of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., has made a difference. At the NCTC, analysts from the FBI and CIA sit side-by-side 24 hours a day, sharing and analyzing threats and parceling out leads to pursue.
�The most important thing has been an overall strengthening of the intelligence community,� Townsend said. �It�s intelligence reform, it�s greater resources in human intelligence, it�s the transformation of the FBI, it�s the Patriot Act, and the technical tools like the NSA terrorism surveillance program and the financial program. The sum of these changes is greater than the parts.�
As someone who was involved in the U.S. Attorney�s office in Manhattan and at the Justice Department in the investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Townsend said she has seen changes that have been remarkable.
�We have an entirely different approach, and it�s so much more effective than waiting until something blows up and then coming in afterwards to try and piece together, from what you find, what happened historically,� she said.
Townsend said those efforts have been undermined by media disclosures of methods for hunting down terrorists.
�It never fails, when we see an unauthorized disclosure, we suffer from it,� she said. �You know people often say the terrorists assume we�re tracking them. But it�s different when you have government sources coming out and either confirming it or you have the details of it and how we do it published. We find that after these disclosures, the enemy shifts their tactics around based on what they learn we are doing.�