Briefing the president about threats to the nation
July 18th, 2012
12:02 AM ET

Briefing the president about threats to the nation

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.

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  4. Peace

    The ISIL or ISIS is an army of 30,000 to 50,000 ? They gather in an area of 35,000 square miles from Syria to Iraq about the size of Belgium. This ISIS army of 13th century barbarians is like a tiny red ant hill compared to our US military. What's the delay to eliminate and destroy ISIS ? Will this last as long as the BP oil spill or be over sooner ?

    September 8, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  5. Peace

    It's a United We Stand in America against terrorism and ISIS will be destroyed.. Obama is coming across in his communications clear and well understood . No drama Obama at work on destroy ISIS and the rest is politics flushing.

    September 8, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Reply
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    August 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  7. Skorpio

    A small fraction of the money applied to war or weapons should be used to convert Muslims to Christianity or to ANY other religion except Islam. This cult is the root of all evil, Islam is the ONLY common link in 98% of all terrorist and violent attacks around the world. A massive conversion of Muslims to Christianity is the most long term viable solution to drastically diminishing global Islamic madness, violence and discrimination.

    May 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  8. CharlieSeattle

    CNN: ...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. ...But I would also say that bio terror is still a viable threat that people don't talk a lot about.

    WOW, A backpack bomb in the subway or bio attacks is your major worry? You are thinking small. Your childlike naivety REALLY scares me!

    Terrorist scouts have been captured on the US southern border. Are they looking to cross harmlessly and pick apples and tomatoes?...I don't think so.

    They are testing for soft spots to smuggle nukes across the Mexican border.

    ................Hmm, but where to put them.

    How about at the bottom of Yellowstone lake atop the thin 3 mile thick porous cork over the super volcano.

    If that sucker blows, radioactive ash 10 to 3 foot thick all the way to the Ohio valley.

    All farmland, DEAD. Livestock, DEAD. Rivers, DEAD. Fish, DEAD. Transportation as we know it, DEAD. 200 million, DEAD and dying! 75% of the country DEAD in a month and Yellowstone will continue to erupt for three months.

    This has a high probability precisely because Obama, Holder and Congress will not secure the Mexican border and enforce existing immigration laws.

    Obama, Holder and Congress LOVE illegals and weak national security!

    However take heart, MAYBE we can knock down a ICBM from North Korea with the new airborne laser, if the launch is patterned like the staged marsh mellow tests to date.

    But the Pacific based Laser cannot target a beat up pickup truck crossing the Mexican border in the dead of night hauling a couple nukes to Yellowstone.

    Pearl Harbor #2 may well be in progress. It will be a very bad day!

    December 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  9. fred37ify

    Don't Barack have to show up to be briefed ??? If he never shows up – no wonder he don't have a clue about whats going on !

    October 19, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  10. Gary Brown

    Poor Obama he can't win ofr effort is in his way. He simlpy observed that those who build businesses rely on a bubbling economy they didnt build to buy their good, and a government (all level) to build infrastructure that deliver their materials and over which they in turn deliver their finished porducts.
    Everyone is too reactionairy. Use the word 'socialism' and they go nuts. Hey the Army, Airforce , Navy, FBI and CIA are socialist, as the temr means paid for out of the public purse. Not as you would have as communists..

    July 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  11. Gary Brown

    Hey Jack here we go again.

    Lets give Romney a chance we will all get tax cuts get outr paychecks deposited in offshore banks, like he does.


    July 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  12. Gary Brown

    We are told the rich are the ones who build the country. A recent Moody report divulged that America's publicly held companys hold a record high $ 1.05 trillion in 2010. If employment is so low why cant the magical builders step forward and make the miracles happen. By now the estimate is $1.93 trillion, still hoarding. Oh I get it keep the economy sluggish, Romney wins, we all get a tax cut cause we have the most money. So this puts them now as heros but as simple exploiters.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • CharlieSeattle

      Do you naively think the "Captains of (outsourced) Industry" care about the citizens of America?

      The "Princes of Capitalism" decided to pad their bottom lines by sending American Jobs to Mexico, China and soon to be announced, the Gulag's in North Korea. They also got Congress to pass laws to make those actions tax deductible with big bribes, er, I mean campaign contributions.

      It is really ironic, that the poor and under employed pay for those very tax deductions with their taxes.

      February 5, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  13. dan

    I would not think he would have the time away from campaigning to listen to anything important to the security of the country.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  14. StanCalif

    Today, the biggest terrorist threat to our nation is our grid locked, do nothing Congress! Congress should be declared "terrorist" and disbanded! We were reminded of this today by the Fed Chairman! The response from Congress was pathetic, telling the Fed Chairman to "get to work" (while we sit here and do nothing!). While the banks grow stronger (thanks to cheap money from the Fed Reserve) they quickly return to their old ways of greed and corruption. Everyone else suffers! And we expect an economic recovery??

    July 18, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Quite true Stan, quite true. Actually, our "do-nothing" Congress just like Obama himself works for the now all-powerful M.I.C.(military-industrial-complex) in Washington D.C. It calls all the shots nowadays!!!

      July 18, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply

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