WASHINGTON—Frances Fragos Townsend says she developed her tough, no-nonsense style from—where else?—New York, where she took on murderers, mobsters and white-collar crooks as an assistant district attorney and federal prosecutor.
"I spent a lot of time in squad rooms with homicide detectives," Townsend said. "And I'll tell you, I learned more on the streets of New York working with detectives—street-smart, savvy, no-nonsense types—than I learned anywhere."
Townsend, 43, employs her skills now as President Bush's in-house homeland security adviser. She's charged with getting the entrenched bureaucracies of the FBI, CIA, Pentagon and other intelligence agencies to play nice and carry out changes.
"Bringing in Fran Townsend is like bringing a pit bull to a hen fight," said Pasquale J. D'Amuro, former director of the FBI's New York office. "If you're going to get into a discussion with her, you better have your facts straight. She's interested in bringing people together and eliminating the bull. ... She's not interested in protecting turf. She's interested in protecting the country."
Slightly over 5 feet tall, Townsend—with her friendly smile, power suits and self-deprecating demeanor—doesn't scream "tough." But her up-by-her bootstraps upbringing, education and career path show a doggedness that's endeared her to police, prosecutors and now a president.
"It's in the family genes. My mom is a sort of a strong matriarch, very Irish-Catholic, and instilled in me a sense of being very independent," she said. "So I've always been very focused. I set goals and I work very hard and stay focused towards achieving those goals."
Townsend oversaw White House review of the report on intelligence failures before the Iraq war, prepared by a commission headed by former Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., and federal Judge Laurence Silberman. In its wake, she announced a major intelligence shakeup last month, including creating new divisions in the FBI and the Justice Department and enhancing the power of new National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
While Negroponte is in charge of implementing the changes, Townsend will assist from her basement office below the White House's West Wing, quarters that belie her standing within the administration.
She meets regularly with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and FBI Director Robert Mueller. She was in the running to be Homeland Security secretary, a job that went to Michael Chertoff, and there's talk of her succeeding Porter Goss as CIA director someday.
Raised on New York's Long Island, Townsend was the first in her family to finish high school. Her father was a roofer. Her mother was office manager for a construction company. They were determined that their only child would receive a college education, but money was tight. So Townsend decided to save money by accelerating her course load in addition to waiting tables and working as a dormitory adviser.
She graduated cum laude from American University in 1982, earning bachelor's degrees in political science and psychology in three and a half years. She maintained the hectic pace at the University of San Diego Law School, earning her degree in two and a half years.
"I really wanted to get on and work, but there were also financial constraints," she recalled. "The quicker I got in and out, the less expensive it would be."
Townsend returned East to work as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Her work and attitude drew praise from FBI agents she worked with, and word filtered to Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, which includes Manhattan.
Giuliani interviewed her for a job in 1988 and was impressed.
"I thought she would make a terrific U.S. attorney: She's articulate, she's smart, she's got a good mind," Giuliani said. "At the same time, she's personable. She really knows how to get along with cops and agents."
Under Giuliani, who later became New York's mayor, Townsend helped prosecute the Gambino crime family in the 1980s. In 1993, she moved to Washington and the Justice Department, where she focused on intelligence-related legal issues under then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
When the Bush administration took office in 2001, Townsend's ties to Reno and the Clinton administration were viewed with suspicion in Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department, according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a Townsend supporter and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness.
Despite being Republican—and the wife of a classmate of Bush's at Andover and Yale, John Townsend—she moved to the Coast Guard's intelligence division in August 2001.
"She was pushed out to the Coast Guard, which was viewed as unimportant," King said.
But Townsend saw it as an opportunity. Nine months pregnant, she began drafting plans to reshape the Coast Guard's small intelligence unit, improving its port security and human intelligence-gathering operations.
"I kind of felt I wanted to run my own operational unit," she said.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. She didn't show up for work that day—she had just given birth to her second child—but she went back almost immediately.
"I had a five-year plan to continue to build the unit and, sure enough, port security being so important, it came to the attention of the White House," she said.
Townsend was promoted to her current job—assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism—in May 2004. At first, she didn't believe that the White House had called. A message was left asking her to call Dr. Rice the day after she and her husband had argued about her getting a physical exam. She called her husband to complain about his nagging.
"Truthfully, I didn't realize Dr. Rice was Condoleezza Rice at the White House," she recalled with a laugh. "For a kid who came up through the bureaucracy as a career public servant, it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would be working for this president."
Frances Fragos Townsend is President Bush's personal adviser on homeland security and counterterrorrism. A brief sketch:
Born: Dec. 28, 1961, in Mineola, N.Y.; raised in Wantagh, N.Y.
Education: First in her family to finish high school. Bachelor's degrees in political science and psychology, American University, 1982. Law degree, University of San Diego Law School, 1984.
Career highlights: Brooklyn assistant district attorney, 1985-88. Prosecutor, U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District (Manhattan), 1988-91. Department of Justice, 1991-2001, serving as chief of staff to the assistant attorney general, director of the Office of International Affairs in the Criminal Division, acting deputy assistant attorney general, counsel for intelligence policy. U.S. Coast Guard, assistant to the commandant for intelligence, 2001-2004.
Job title today: Assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
Personal: Married lawyer John Townsend, 1994. Two sons, ages 9 and 3.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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