Fran Townsend, the leading White House-based terrorism adviser who gave public updates on the extent of the threat to U.S. security, is stepping down after 4 1/2 years.
President Bush said in a statement Monday morning that Townsend, 45, “has ably guided the Homeland Security Council. She has played an integral role in the formation of the key strategies and policies my administration has used to combat terror and protect Americans.”
Her departure continues an exodus of key Bush aides and confidants, with his two-term presidency in the final 14 months. Top aide Karl Rove, along with press secretary Tony Snow, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior presidential adviser Dan Bartlett, have already left.
In her handwritten resignation letter to Bush, Townsend wrote, “It is with a profound sense of gratitude that I have decided to take a respite from public service.” White House press secretary Dana Perino said Townsend struggled with the decision, talking about it with the president for months.
In an interview, Townsend said she hates to leave when figures like Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, remain at large. “Do I wish that I was going to be standing here when they are captured or killed? Absolutely. But I have no doubt that we will ultimately be successful,” she said.
Townsend decided it was time to take a break from government work — only a break, not an end, she insisted — and look for a job in the private sector.
She hopes to work in global risk management for a large bank or financial services company. Townsend also said she has now changed her mind and would consider running for public office someday. In the past, she prosecuted violent crimes, narcotics offenses, Mafia cases and white-collar fraud as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y. and as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
For someone who at one point had figured in speculation as to who would head the then-new Department of Homeland Security or assume the newly created post of national intelligence director, she became a familiar face for the administration, often appearing on morning news and Sunday interview shows to present Bush’s case.
When Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold called on Bush to refrain from using the phrase “Islamic fascists” on grounds it was offensive to Muslims, Townsend explained the president’s use of the phrase.
“Regardless of what label you pin on it, it is this form of radical extremism that really wants to deny people freedom and impose a totalitarian vision of society on everyone,” she said at a news conference.
During the devastating wildfires in California, she said the federal effort to help was going “exactly the way it should be” and assured Californians that Washington’s performance would be “better and faster” than after Hurricane Katrina’s strike against the Gulf Coast states in 2005.
In the interview, she said the revamping of federal emergency response after Katrina, which she led, has resulted in a FEMA that “is better and stronger today” and a more aggressive mind-set among federal officials about not waiting to be asked for help. However, Townsend said, “We still have work to do.”
There was no word on a successor for Townsend. Perino said officials intended to act “relatively soon,” because Bush wants some overlap between Townsend and her replacement before she leaves just after the first of the year. Townsend said she has overcome persistent doubts and believes that the White House must continue to have a Homeland Security Council despite the existence now of a separate Homeland Security Department.
“There’s not enough hours in the day for the national security adviser” to do all that the job entails and all the coordinating among many agencies can’t be done from outside the White House, Townsend said.
Bush has seen a substantial revamping of the lineup of players on the team he brought to Washington as the just-elected president in a disputed election with Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
He saw longtime friend, aide and confidant Gonzales resigned earlier this fall in the face of a convulsive uproar on Capitol Hill over the dismissals of a slew of federal prosecutors and in connection with the administration’s warrantless wiretap program. And Rumsfeld resigned just after the time of the 2006 elections in which Democrats, harping on a get-out-of-Iraq theme, regained control of Congress.
Perino shrugged off the notion that a loss of top talent will hurt Bush’s last months in office, noting the recent recruitment of experienced hands such as new Attorney General Michael Mukasey and White House counselor Ed Gillespie.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this story.