White House anti-terror chief: 'We are due for another attack'

A conversation with Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

In her windowless office inside the White House, Frances Townsend keeps a small mock-up of the World Trade Center towers in New York. The model serves as a daily reminder of all that was lost five years ago on September 11, 2001, and of what could happen again tomorrow.

As the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Townsend spends more time than perhaps any other U.S. official assessing the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Recently, she spoke with National Journal staff correspondent James Kitfield. Edited excerpts from that interview follow.

NJ: On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the question on the minds of many Americans is whether we're winning what the Bush administration calls the "global war on terror."

Townsend: Well, we've indisputably made enormous progress. We've killed or captured most of the leaders of Al Qaeda as it existed on 9/11. We've also made great strides in terms of making it harder for them to hit targets here in the United States. We now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in this conflict, two countries that were not our allies in the war on terror before 9/11. That speaks volumes about our diplomatic engagement in the war on terror, because it's much better for America that we're fighting the Saudi extremists in Saudi Arabia rather than here. So those are all indications of our ongoing success in the war on terrorism.

NJ: So you would argue that we're winning the conflict?

Townsend: It's important that I put my comments into context. Do I think Al Qaeda operatives are plotting to attack us even as we sit here and speak? Yes. Do I think they desperately want to hit us? Absolutely. Have we been very fortunate, largely as the result of a lot of hard work in playing both offense and defense, in terms of thwarting another attack? Yes. Margaret Thatcher said it best: We have to be right every day. They only have to be right once. So I go to bed every night and wake up every morning worrying about the next terrorist attack, because my deeply held belief is that they are planning it right now. In answer to your question, I would say we're safer but not safe. We're doing better, but we haven't won the war on terror.

NJ: Certainly the recent plot foiled by British and Pakistani authorities to blow up U.S. jetliners over the Atlantic supports your concerns. Are we seeing better international intelligence-sharing?

Townsend: One of the most critical aspects of this effort is sharing information and intelligence with our allies. We've broken up a number of terrorist plots by working with the Pakistanis, the British, the Canadians, and others. You read about those plots in the newspaper. That's a function of a level of trust that I don't think the international counter-terrorism community enjoyed before 9/11. We're sharing the most-sensitive data and intelligence-gathering techniques with our international partners, in real time, because it is in all of our best interests. In many cases, the enemy is located in countries with which we are not at war, so empowering our partners to fight the terrorists at home is extremely important.

NJ: How do you respond to criticism that the global war on terror misconstrues the exact nature of the Islamic extremism that we confront and has led to an overemphasis on military force?

Townsend: We may talk to the American people about the "global war on terror," but I take issue with the idea that we have failed to correctly define the enemy. We're fighting a transnational movement of radical extremists -- a network of organizations and individuals, both state-supported and independent -- that uses terrorism as a means to an ideological end. So we know who the enemy is. What's more, our effectiveness against that enemy will depend on our ability to use not just the military but all instruments of national power, to include diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence, and economic power.

NJ: How do you synchronize those tools in an attack on Islamic extremism?

Townsend: By adopting a network-attack approach. You analyze each terrorist organization and determine what it needs to operate and survive, and then you attack those vulnerabilities. For example, terrorist groups need leaders, weapons, money, and the ability to travel. So you go after each of those nodes, recognizing that even small victories or successes will ultimately degrade the network's overall capability.

NJ: What did we learn from Al Qaeda's use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for so many years?

Townsend: We learned that the terrorists need turf on which to operate and plan. They need territory. So we have to be very careful to deny them ungoverned spaces like Afghanistan was in the 1990s. We also have to look around the world and focus a good deal of attention on weak governments and other ungoverned spaces that the terrorists could exploit.

NJ: Why have we been unsuccessful in denying Osama bin Laden sanctuary in Pakistan?

Townsend: I can assure you that almost everyone in the senior ranks of the U.S. and Pakistani governments is engaged in tackling this problem of the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan where we think some Al Qaeda leaders continue to hide. We are getting more cooperation from Pakistan today than we ever did in the past. Islamabad has shown a willingness to engage with us about what they are doing, what their goals are, and how long it will take to reach those goals. We had no insight into that in the past. And, quite frankly, we constantly push Pakistan for even more cooperation. So it's not a question of us being satisfied with the status quo. I'm never satisfied.

NJ: After Pakistan, which of the world's ungoverned or weakly governed spaces cause you the most concern?

Townsend: I worry about Iraq and Afghanistan, not because their governments aren't committed to the fight against terrorism, but rather because they face significant resistance from insurgencies inside their own territory. I worry about a place like Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for a long time. I'm concerned that Yemen has been an inconsistent partner in the war on terror. And nothing makes me angrier, quite frankly, than state sponsors like Iran who continue to fund terrorist organizations as a deliberate extension of their foreign policy. Recent events in Lebanon were only the latest manifestation of this state sponsorship of terrorism, which remains a huge problem.

NJ: In terms of Iraq, how do you respond to critics who argue that the conflict there and controversies such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal have greatly inflamed Islamic radicalization?

Townsend: I find that argument somewhat disingenuous. As we found out on 9/11 when 19 people flew airplanes into buildings in the United States, there was obviously a good deal of radicalization well before we entered Iraq. Now, I realize that the enemy uses pictures and images from Iraq selectively as propaganda to inflame emotions and make people angry at the United States. I just don't think the propaganda is true. Is there a good deal of radicalization in the Muslim world? Yes. Are there people who are angry at the United States and disagree with aspects of our foreign policy, such as our support for Israel? Sure. To me, one of the greatest reasons to support our democratization efforts -- whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in the Middle East generally -- is the prospect that instead of being inflamed by propaganda or controlled by oppressive regimes people in that region will have the freedom to come to the United States and decide for themselves what America is all about. As for Abu Ghraib, I would just point out that was not a policy but a crime, and I'm as angry about that crime as any Iraqi.

NJ: But haven't Iraq and Afghanistan taught us just how difficult it is to transplant democracy in nations with no democratic traditions?

Townsend: Yes, but nobody said this was going to be easy. As President Bush has pointed out, our own democratic evolution was messy and it didn't follow a straight line. People will argue and fight. That's part of the beauty of democracy. Having said that, we do need to peel away this patina of violence that threatens to smother the young democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Democracies require the same light and air that human beings need to thrive. That's why we're working so hard in both countries to reinforce security forces so they can police their own societies and democracy can flourish.

NJ: In their report on the terrorist bombings of the London transit system last year, British authorities essentially admitted that Britain remains vulnerable to attack. Do you agree?

Townsend: Well, I was very impressed by the tone that senior British officials adopted, almost to a man. Sometimes we tend not to be that assertive and up front with the American people, because we don't want to frighten them. But the truth is, there are people out there right now who will go to any ends to kill us. They continue to plot attacks overseas and here at home. That's not about trying to scare anybody. It's just being honest. The threat from terrorists is as real today as it was on September 11, 2001, and it will continue to be real as long as these people are dedicated to trying to destroy us.

NJ: Why not just level with the American people about how dangerous the threat remains, if for no other reason than to stave off complacency?

Townsend: I'm frequently asked what worries me the most, and I always respond that the greatest enemy of the American people is complacency. Unless the average citizen believes that the threat of terrorism is a major, daily concern, we will lose their support and their vigilance. The minute that happens we will be off our game. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, I know some people will argue that we haven't been hit again, so the war must be over and warnings to the contrary are just political rhetoric. To those people I say, we know this enemy and looking back at 9/11 we understand that their planning cycle is three to five years. That tells me that America is in the danger zone. We are due for another attack. This is the last time we should be patting ourselves on the back and declaring victory.