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.
Townsend began her government career in 1985 as a local prosecutor in Brooklyn, working under District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, a prominent liberal Democratic activist. Three years later, Townsend moved to the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan -- notoriously liberal-laden amid a Republican administration. Townsend's boss and patron there was Jo Ann Harris, whose orientation was liberal Democratic.
When Attorney General Reno in 1993 summoned Harris to Washington as assistant attorney general running the Criminal Division, Harris immediately brought Townsend along as her aide. Townsend was promoted to oversee international law enforcement and then became counsel to the attorney general for terrorism and head of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) -- a political Reno appointment for a supposed career slot.
The line between career and political appointments at Justice has been blurred, but Townsend was viewed by old timers at Justice as part of the Reno inner circle. Her critics partially blame Townsend for changes in operation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that they claim inhibited sharing of information between intelligence and prosecution.
That shortcoming was corrected by Attorney General John Ashcroft, but not before the failure to investigate Moussaoui prior to Sept. 11. The White House official told me that Townsend had tried to correct FISA shortcomings, but that is not the version by former Justice colleagues. Ashcroft sent Townsend to the Coast Guard as assistant commandant for Intelligence, where she remained until her appointment as the president's adviser on counterterrorism.
Townsend did not return my telephone calls. The White House official representing her said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice obtained endorsements of her by Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet.
"I am absolutely astonished," a former Justice Department told me when he was informed of her claims to being a lifelong Republican. With Democrats in full cry against Bush's conduct of the war against terrorism, the president can only hope Fran Townsend is not another Randy Beers.