EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles about national security by participants in the upcoming Aspen Security Forum. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 25-28 in Aspen, Colorado.
CNN Intelligence Correspondent Suzanne Kelly interviewed CNN contributor Fran Townsend, a former adviser to President George W. for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on how terror threats are relayed and managed at the highest levels of the White House.
CNN: Describe the role of assistant to the president when it comes to managing issues of counterterrorism on a daily basis.
FRAN TOWNSEND: It's twofold. The first thing is that the individual is responsible for identifying and running a policy process related to that area in coordination with other agencies: everything from transportation security to disaster response, all the way through to interrogations. The whole host of policies related to terrorism is one substantial piece to that job, but then there's also an operational aspect, but not in the sense of directing operations, rather in coordinating them. That job was traditionally brought together by the (intelligence) agencies. Now, you've got an (National Counterterrorism Center) that basically does that for the White House. As a third thing, I would say there is a diplomatic role that that person plays, and that is to meet with senior members of foreign governments to make sure we are getting the cooperation we need.
CNN: I'm not certain that everyone would understand what a typical day is like for the assistant to the president on issues of counterterrorism. How did a typical day unfold for you?
TOWNSEND: No two days in the White House are almost ever the same, but there are a couple of things: The president would get a daily update on terrorism. In the beginning, it was always in person. Sometimes, if there was not a burning crisis, we would do it on paper. In the midst of a crisis or threat, it might be daily, or it might be more than once a day. I might update him with a representative from another agency or alone, but there was no sort of average day. It depended on whether or not there was an active threat. Every morning during the Bush White House, there was a senior staff meeting, and so the president's chief of staff takes the temperature from all of the assistants to the president about what's on their plate that day and what's going on. It's the chief of staff's way to plan the president's day.
CNN: Just how often is the president being briefed on a current threat? How often were there serious security crisis to manage?
TOWNSEND: Often. Think of a dimmer switch. Immediately post-9/11, the regular drumbeat of a threat was very high. Over time, it turned down some, but there was always a steady stream of threat reporting, and when those investigations would go hot, when you had individuals who were targets of interest, or you may have identified a threat, and you could put two things together, then it went hot. I can remember a Saturday, [then-National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and I were working, and we ordered lunch, and she asked me, 'What's your gut? Is this really a threat?' And I smiled and said, 'We're going to have to go full force on this one until we've got it.' That question, Suzanne, the way information began to come together allowed you to get a sense of whether a threat was real and whether we needed to fall into a dead-out sprint to get to the bottom of it.
CNN: It sounds like it's more than just a gut instinct.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, I always cringe at the idea of saying gut, ‘cause it's not gut. If you're experienced, when you've seen enough of these threats, there are pieces to this: How is your sourcing? Which foreign service did we work with? You're asking yourself a series of questions about whether this feels real. Is the target within the zone of what we know al Qaeda is targeting? How many people are involved? How did we identify them? What intelligence methods have we used to build or corroborate? Which international partners did we work with, and is it their source?
CNN: How often does that tick-tock threat happen?
TOWNSEND: We've seen hundreds of threats, thousands, and we've seen some pan out and some not. A threat can range from the crazy person who walks into an embassy somewhere around the world, which you don't have to spend a lot of time on, to something more serious. When I first arrived in the West Wing in 2004, the president was getting something called the threat matrix. It was a document that was produced overnight and was a compilation of every report of a threat, and that included the walk-ins. I took one look at that and said, 'No. This must be my job to work with the community to decide what the president sees,' because he has too many other things to do, and I should work to make sure we filter it correctly. If we fail, then it would be my failure.
CNN: The threat often changes, and one day you might hear the president say that the most concerning terrorist threat is the nuclear one, and a week later, it might be the danger posed by a lone wolf actor. What are the most concerning threats that have seemed to span administrations?
TOWNSEND: It's the backpack bomb in the subway or the underwear bomb or the bomb in a computer cartridge on a plane. The immediate threat I think is still the homegrown threat. That's where we're most vulnerable. But I would also say that bioterror is still a viable threat that people don't talk a lot about. When we go back to the original al Qaeda playbook, we know they had a real interest in using anthrax as a weapon. As the 9/11 report said, we should never be guilty of a failure of imagination. Their people rarely say things they don't mean, and so their intent and commitment and interest is clear, and we have to take them at their word.