Catching Up on Homeland Security

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Robert Siegel talks with Frances Townsend, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Townsend talks about mistakes made before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and President Bush's counter-terrorism policies and proposals.


Frances Townsend is assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. She's a former prosecutor, and she joins us now from the White House. Welcome to the program, Ms. Townsend.

Ms. FRANCES TOWNSEND (Homeland Security, White House): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: Five years almost after 9/11 Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large. Does that fact represent a great danger to the U.S. or has the danger that they once posed now either been reduced or superseded by that of local groups that might be inspired by them but not directed by them?

Ms. TOWNSEND: You know, I'm often asked this question and what I would say to you is it's not necessarily an either/or. It's not that it's either centrally controlled or there are these local groups. It's a combination of both and I think we find that both exist and we have to fight against both types of groups.

SIEGEL: If indeed al-Qaida directed terrorism is still a problem, does it frustrate you every day that we haven't found bin Laden and Zawahiri?

Ms. TOWNSEND: You know, I would say it's less frustrating as it is the real focus of our attention and our effort. We spend time every day talking about the targeting effort against bin Laden and Zawahiri and I'm absolutely confident that we're making progress towards bringing them to justice.

SIEGEL: That we are making progress, in fact, toward either capturing them or their being killed in the field somewhere?

Ms. TOWNSEND: That's right.

SIEGEL: You followed this summer's arrests in England, I've read, where the plot was uncovered to hijack and fly planes into the U.S. As you understand it, is that evidence of, say, bin Laden or Zawahiri's influence or is it evidence perhaps that the U.S. responses to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq have actually inspired terrorist plots like that one?

Ms. TOWNSEND: No, there's no evidence that our response to 9/11 has inspired those types of attacks. I think what we've found are there are some connections between the group in London and those in command of al-Qaida but what we're looking for is what are the nature and depth of those connections. And I think over time we're going to find that there were real connections there.

SIEGEL: But you say that wasn't inspired by the U.S. response to 9/11. Certainly in Iraq if we see that as a response to 9/11, it has increased the danger of terrorism in Iraq by Iraqis, hasn't it?

Ms. TOWNSEND: Well, I think when you say that Iraq was our response to 9/11, I think it's more accurate, if you will, to say what we learned from 9/11 was that we couldn't wait until threats actually materialized. We had to address them before they were actually in effect and in the execution phase.

And so what I really think that in many respects what we've found from our fight in Iraq is as, in the words of the terrorists, it's a central front in the war on terror and so we cannot give them that ground from which to plan attacks.

SIEGEL: But, for example, the Senate Intelligence Committee report that's out today makes pretty clear that many of the things that were said before the war in Iraq in part to justify it were simply wrong.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Well, that's right. We're obviously reviewing the Senate's report as we speak. But what I would say to you is it's pretty clear that given what we believed on a bipartisan basis prior to the conflict in Iraq, everybody believed that that was a real threat and it was a real threat that needed to be addressed and could not be ignored.

SIEGEL: An assistant attorney general, Steven Bradbury, said this week of a bill that he sort of liked, on the Hill, he said it's good because it recognizes that in terms of armed conflict involving an exigent terrorist threat the president may need to act with agility and dispatch to protect the nation. And he was talking about such things as wiretaps or communications intercepts.

Don't you foresee that sort of threat existing for decades hence and wouldn't that mean that the president's authority is going to be permanently increased right now because of what happened on 9/11?

Ms. TOWNSEND: I think that's right. This is a long war and we are likely to face the immediate threat of terrorism for some time to come, so it's not just this president. It's this president and presidents in the future will need that authority.

SIEGEL: That means, in effect, that the entire structure of oversight for intelligence gathering that grew up after the disclosures of the ‘70s, all of that should be forgotten now. We live in a new age. Presidents should have much more freedom of maneuver. That's what I hear you saying. Am I right?

Ms. TOWNSEND: No. No, that's not right. It's not a question of doing away with oversight. It's a question of recognizing that in a time of war we need to work closely with those members of Congress who have a need to know and have oversight responsibility to ensure that we're working together to combat the threat.

SIEGEL: Do you accept the concept of reciprocity that's embodied in the Geneva Conventions that we treat captured enemy fighters the way we would want an enemy to treat our captured fighters? Or is this somehow very different in dealing with the current enemy?

Ms. TOWNSEND: This current enemy is very different. They wear no uniform. They represent no democratically elected government. This is an enemy that fights from the shadows. We have to recognize that in prosecuting them and in prosecuting the war, we need rules that are effective in terms of our fight on the battlefield.


But should they be rules that would be equally applicable to some future conflict in which there are uniformed armed forces fighting against each other?

Ms. TOWNSEND: Well, look. The president has said he is willing to work with our allies on Capital Hill and with the Congressional members, and we're going to have to work through what the details are of this. We are going to have to be mindful of how these rules would impact future conflicts, but we're going to have to build rules that allow us to effectively fight this conflict.

SIEGEL: This conflict and rules that might be unique to this conflict.

Ms. TOWNSEND: That's right.

SIEGEL: Would you agree that we are safer today than we were five years ago?

Ms. TOWNSEND: We are absolutely safer, but make no mistake, with a determined enemy plotting against us, we are still at risk and there's still more to do.

SIEGEL: Well, Fran Townsend, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. TOWNSEND: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Frances Townsend, who is the assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism speaking to us from the White House.

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