White House National Security Adviser Discusses Terror Threats
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JIM LEHRER: Now, to a newsmaker interview with Frances Townsend, assistant to the president and homeland security adviser. She reports to President Bush on homeland security and antiterrorism policies.
Ms. Townsend, welcome.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: First, for the record, the high alert status for the locations here in Washington, New York and New Jersey, they remain as is, as we speak?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: They are now at orange. The financial sector in those three cities is now at orange. Now New York, people should understand New York has been at orange since 9/11.
And so they had a heightened security posture as it is. We’ve asked that they take those sectors and take special precautions in those particular sectors.
JIM LEHRER: But nothing has happened today to change this or modify it in any way whatsoever.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: No, that’s right.
JIM LEHRER: What about broadening it to other sectors? It’s still narrowly defined at these particular financial institutions, correct?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: That’s right in those particular cities. But this is a continuing intelligence stream.
As secretary Ridge alluded to yesterday as the intelligence comes in we may have to broaden it; we may have to broaden it to the financial sector in other cities or beyond the financial sector.
JIM LEHRER: It also could be diminished. There’s nothing that’s happened to remove the severity of the warning, too, is that correct?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: That’s correct.
JIM LEHRER: That’s safe to say. What is known about how many people may be involved in this al-Qaida plot to take action against these institutions?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Jim, it’s difficult to say. But when you look at the volume and the detailed nature of the intelligence, it’s clear that there were some of these individuals inside the United States who had access to these locations and spent a good deal of time accumulating very, very specific information about them.
JIM LEHRER: As far as the U.S. Government knows, these people are still here?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, no, it’s not clear. This information was gathered in 2000 and 2001.
It appears that some of it may have been updated as recently as January of this year but it’s not clear… you can’t tell from the intelligence itself whether or not those individuals are still here.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any kind of ballpark idea as to how many people we’re talking about?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: No. It’s really impossible to say.
JIM LEHRER: Do you know whether these people are in fact in Washington, New York and in Newark, New Jersey?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Jim, if we knew where they were they’d be in custody.
JIM LEHRER: So you don’t have any kind of information, specific information about names, faces anything like that?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well we have some. I obviously am not going to go into detail on that because we’re trying to capture them.
But we are working — one of the beauties of this is we’ve been working with our allies overseas, for example, Pakistan, and that stronger and strengthened relationship has allowed us to get this sort of information that we can action.
JIM LEHRER: Is it fair to say that one of the reasons that this alert was… the alert was raised but also information was given out about it, what information has been given out was to tell the terrorists we’re on to them?
Was that a specific goal in doing this as well, hoping they would take a pass?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well that’s part of it. But I’ll tell you, as we identified specific targets and that target set continues to increase, we learn more every single day.
Part of it is to deter them, to disrupt their activity, to throw off their operational plan. What we’ve learned with three years of experience is as we change our security posture, it causes them to go back on their operational plans.
Suddenly what they think they know they don’t know. And it makes them uneasy. The other thing it does is it alerts the public. People who are in those buildings, people who live around those buildings become much more alert as you can imagine.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any evidence and anything that you know that there may be alternative sites, that in other words that they had planned that if they did get found out about this, boom, we’ll go to Plan B, C or D, anything like that?
Are you worried about that?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: I am worried about that. But that’s why when we talk about the kinds of measures that can be taken at these specific financial institutions when Tom Ridge put out the alert, we told other financial institutions and businesses around the country what sort of protective measures they too should be looking at.
JIM LEHRER: But the financial institution thing is very clean and clear.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Absolutely. The intelligence is absolutely clear.
The good news from my perspective is it’s interesting the financial sector takes the most extraordinary security precautions as it is. And so it’s a very hard target to begin with.
JIM LEHRER: Have you monitored– you and folks in your office– monitored the security steps that have been taken today around the country at these particular sites?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Absolutely. Tom Ridge reached out to the CEO’s of those major companies over the weekend.
Bob Mueller in the FBI worked with the state and local authorities to reach out to the security directors for those companies and to ensure that additional security precautions were in place when those businesses opened this morning.
JIM LEHRER: And you’re satisfied that everything that can be done is being done?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Absolutely. And you can imagine it’s in those businesses’ interest to increase their own security.
JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now to the president’s reforms and the proposals he made today, this national intelligence director, clear up a couple of things.
The president says it’s stand- alone. What does that mean?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, you know, it’s interesting. While it’s been suggested that it should be a position inside the White House, you can imagine, Jim, if we did that, we would be accused of politicizing the intelligence.
Frankly the president wanted to ensure that this was a free- standing, autonomous structure where it would integrate for him all the divergent views in the intelligence community.
The intelligence community is made up of 15 individual components. And rather than have one person head it who also happens to run an agency that’s a part of it….
JIM LEHRER: Which is what is the situation now with the head of the CIA?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: That’s right. He wanted to ensure that it was an objective person who could integrate all views including dissents and alternative analysis for him.
JIM LEHRER: But then the president just said on our clip, I have the right to hire this person; I have the right to fire this person. What’s the difference between that and a cabinet officer?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, the fact is it removes you one step but it does maintain accountability.
The president wants to be sure that this person is responsible for… it’s the one person he looks to to ensure that his priorities are the priorities of his intelligence community.
JIM LEHRER: Now, does this person have the authority to hire and fire the CIA director?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: This person will have the authority to look at nominations for those, all the positions within the intelligence community and will have a concurrence, if you will, will review them and give the president his best advice.
This person will be the president’s primary intelligence adviser.
JIM LEHRER: Adviser, not an operator, right?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: No, that’s right. This will not be an operational position.
JIM LEHRER: So if the president says to the national director… or the president would never say to the national director, is there any covert ops that we could and fill in the blank country?
The national intelligence director wouldn’t be involved in that? That would go directly to the CIA?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: That’s right. And the president was very clear today in his statement and in his intentions. That is to maintain the chain much command in each of those operating agencies.
If there’s a related military intelligence operation, he’ll look to the secretary of defense on that.
JIM LEHRER: So but then where does the national director of intelligence come in there? Let’s say — well, explain how… say there’s an operation involved in the Department of Defense.
Use your example. How does this new director get involved?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, the fact is the national director will be responsible for setting priorities in the intelligence community, looking at collection requirements that cross both foreign and domestic.
You wouldn’t want the secretary of defense or the director of the CIA doing the domestic piece. This person sits outside there and makes sure all of the intelligence components are operating against the same collection requirements.
If terrorism is a priority, they all need to be collecting against that. He’ll also look at their budgets to make sure that their budgets are in line with their priorities and that they’re meeting the president’s requirements.
JIM LEHRER: You say this person needs to make sure. What power does the person have to make sure? What kind of clout does he or she have over the head of the CIA, over the head of the FBI and on down the list?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, in terms of intelligence he’ll have tremendous priority because he’ll be integrating and reviewing their budgets.
He’ll also have power in that he’ll be the primary advisor to the president. The precise mechanisms we’ll need to work with Congress as to establish that position as the president said today.
JIM LEHRER: Is the… tell me again why the president did not want this person to be a cabinet officer.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: It’s a matter… the president wanted to make sure this person had all the authorities commensurate with their responsibilities but was not in any way influenced by being a part of the White House operation.
He wanted the person to be autonomous and outside of the White House.
JIM LEHRER: Now, stand-alone, will be an office away from the White House. Will there be a large staff? What kind of operation will this person have?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, I imagine it will be pretty substantial. When you look at what the requirements will be to do analysis, look at the national counterterrorism center will be a component of this….
JIM LEHRER: And this person will run that new center, right?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: That’s right. But imagine to do just the counterterrorism job alone will require substantial resources of the terrorist threat integration center, the FBI, the CIA, and so this is going to require a good amount of staff.
For example, the director of central intelligence now who is responsible for managing the community has a whole staff, the community management staff, that does that for him. So this intelligence czar, if you will, will need substantial resources to complete the mission.
JIM LEHRER: Will the intelligence czar will be the sole person to brief the president every day on intelligence matters?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: He’ll be responsible for the integration. How that works out as a practical matter, we’ll have to see.
I mean, right now the president meets every single day with the director of central intelligence, the director of the FBI, the homeland security secretary and the attorney general and myself.
And so it’s a matter of if we can get to the point where that integration gets done in a single document with a single place he shouldn’t have to meet with all those people every day.
JIM LEHRER: This director will do all of that, right?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Should be, that’s right.
JIM LEHRER: Should be doing that. Now, you mentioned the attorney general.
The director of the FBI is answerable to the attorney general. Will that change in any way on intelligence matters now?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: No, I don’t expect that chain of command to change at all.
You know, what’s really important about that relationship between the FBI director and the attorney general, the attorney general really is the oversight over the domestic activities of the FBI to ensure protection of civil liberties.
JIM LEHRER: If the president wants the CIA to do something under this new arrangement, assuming it goes through the way the president wants it, how does he get that done?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, as I said to you it was really important to the president that we not do any harm to the command-and-control relationships that those individuals enjoy.
And so if there was a covert operation that the FBI…. that the president wanted implemented by the CIA, he would give that order directly to the CIA director, and the CIA director would be answerable to him.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any present office or department or agency or whatever in the federal government that could be used as an example to explain how this would work?
I don’t mean as an intelligence function but as a function of government.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Yeah, I think the closest example — and the president made this reference in his remarks — is to the joint chiefs of staff where you bring all the military services together and there’s a principal… the chairman is the principal military adviser to the president. I’d say that’s probably the closest analogy to what the director of national intelligence will be on intelligence matters.
JIM LEHRER: But in that case there’s… take that one more step — in terms of making the analogy with the joint chiefs.
The chairman of the joint chiefs is a general or an admiral in the military. What kind of officer or whatever would this intelligence person be? How does the parallel work there?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, when you look at the joint chiefs, what they do is they take each of the military services and they give the secretary of defense or the president an integrated view of military capability and what the military would advise the president on military operations.
In this case what you’re doing is taking instead of the five services, military services, you’re taking the fifteen intelligence agencies and this director of national intelligence will be required to integrate budgets, priorities and requirements.
JIM LEHRER: Picking up on one thing finally that Sen. Kerry said today. Does the president now regret his opposition to the 9/11 Commission at the very beginning?
FRANCES TOWNSEND: I don’t know that regret is the word. I think what was important in the beginning was that the mandate be clear.
The president has welcomed the report. It has been terrific work that the Commission has done by fine Americans who are patriots.
The president really wanted the benefit of their views in a bipartisan way. This was too important. We wanted to get their recommendations, we wanted to make sure their mandate was clear so that we could then move forward.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Ms. Townsend, thank you very much.
FRANCES TOWNSEND: Jim, thank you.