WASHINGTON -- Much of Washington was stunned last month when President Bush's chief counterterrorism expert resigned with a blast of criticism and then joined Democratic Sen. John Kerry's campaign for president. The shock among a knowledgeable few was even greater when an intimate adviser of Janet Reno as the Clinton administration's attorney general was named to a similar high-ranking terrorism post.
Defector Rand Beers's post as senior director for Combating Terrorism remains vacant. However, on May 27, Frances Fragos Townsend was named deputy national security adviser for Combating Terrorism. The announcement obscured the fact that she had been a Democratic political appointment who was partially blamed by erstwhile Justice colleagues for failure to investigate alleged Sept. 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. A White House official told me Townsend considers herself a career government employee and a "lifelong Republican," with no responsibility for the Moussaoui fiasco.
Careful political screening by the Bush operation for routine appointments seems to have broken down in filling highly sensitive terrorism posts. The Democratic establishment, probing for soft spots in the president's armor, is claiming a misdirected war against terrorism. Bush has already suffered from one enemy within, and now risks another.
Resignation of a senior national security aide on policy grounds followed by defection to the political opposition is unprecedented. The selection last August of Beers to replace resigned veteran terrorism expert Dick Clarke raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Career foreign service officer Beers repeatedly tangled with House Republicans over how to fight narcoterrorists in Colombia.
Beers, a registered Democrat, vigorously promoted President Clinton's cautious line on Colombian policy as his assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. He owed Clinton for saving his career in 1997, when White House aides wanted to sack him as a National Security Council staffer for failing to give the president FBI reports about illegal campaign contributions from China. Beers holding a highly sensitive post in a Republican administration was an accident bound to happen.
As Beers joined the Kerry campaign by attacking Bush, extreme care would have been expected in making further appointments. That is why the Townsend selection was so stunning to officials who knew her at the Justice Department.