White House

Bush's top homeland-security adviser quits

Frances Townsend, Assistant to the President, has resigned.
Frances Townsend, Assistant to the President, has resigned. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Fran Townsend, who as President Bush's top homeland-security adviser was the chief — and often embattled — public spokeswoman for White House policies on terrorism threats and disaster response, resigned Monday.

Townsend's calm, forceful, matter-of-fact demeanor made her a valuable representative for the administration during its bungled reaction to Hurricane Katrina, its efforts to streamline the nation's intelligence agencies and its halting efforts to secure U.S. borders, ports, airports and other facilities against terrorists.

Monday's parting was amiable; Bush praised Townsend's "wise counsel on how to best protect the American people from the threat of terrorism."

Townsend, 45, had come to the job four and a half years ago, a position created to coordinate homeland-security policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She came with a reputation as a tough prosecutor able to work with members of both political parties.

There was some speculation Monday that she'd advise former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's presidential campaign. She worked in the U.S. attorney's office in the southern district of New York in the 1980s, helping to prosecute organized-crime cases and, according to accounts at the time, impressing then-U.S. Attorney Giuliani.

No one was talking about her future Monday; the Giuliani campaign had no comment.

At the White House, talk centered on Bush losing another trusted adviser in the waning days of his second term. In recent months, there's been a steady exodus of Bush loyalists, including political guru Karl Rove, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, senior adviser Dan Bartlett, State Department official Karen Hughes and others.

Spokeswoman Dana Perino saw no trend in the departures.

"I know there's a story line people are trying to perpetuate," she said, "but look at the people the president has been able to attract to the administration to work in the last little while."

She gave no timetable for a Townsend replacement, saying only "we are hoping there would be one relatively soon."

The administration will need someone with the public relations skills Townsend demonstrated in a tough arena.

Members of Congress regarded her as having the legal background, the toughness and the charm to deflect — or at least soften — their criticisms of the administration's homeland-security apparatus.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in late summer 2005, Townsend was summoned repeatedly to explain why the White House wasn't better prepared, and was subjected to often-withering criticism.

By early 2006, congressional investigators had found that homeland security officials were disorganized and inattentive before and after Katrina slammed into the coast.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was then the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, said at the time that federal emergency-management officials "failed to prepare for the very type of disaster that happens every year."

Her committee later recommended that the Federal Emergency Management Agency be abolished, calling it "discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional . . . beyond repair."

Townsend nonetheless remained a staunch, public Bush defender. She did her own review of the Katrina response, and told state emergency-management officials, who were meeting in Virginia at the time, "I reject outright the suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved."

She pledged to implement a series of steps that would improve communications, training and evacuation procedures, steps that continue to evolve.

FEMA, though, remains the target of sharp criticism. Last week, for instance, the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on housing-maintenance contracts in Mississippi aimed at helping Katrina victims.

"FEMA's ineffective oversight resulted in an estimated $30 million in wasteful and improper and potentially fraudulent payments to (certain) contractors" from June 2006 until January, the GAO found, "and likely led to millions more in unnecessary spending beyond this period."

FEMA told the GAO that it's looking into the problems and if necessary plans to "assert claims against the contractors for the appropriate amount."