Alas, There Were Precious Few to Check

President Bush announced today — over the protests of disgruntled Democrats — that Francis Fargos Townsend will head an internal White House investigation into the fiasco of the government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina. Townsend’s job, as the president has put it, is to find out “what went right and what went wrong.”

So we were a little shocked today to see that only the New York Times covered her appointment, and in a cursory manner at that. No one took up the question of just who this person is, taking on such an enormous and politically fraught task.

It’s not that Townsend has been uncovered in the past. In fact, we didn’t have to look very far to find out what is problematic about Townsend’s appointment. Just last month the Washington Post ran a rather bizarre profile of Townsend which seemed to regard her with awe — at the same time that it questioned whether she had risen too high too quickly. Since Townsend was appointed Homeland Security advisor in May 2004, she’s overseen, as the Post put it, “Bush’s far-flung campaign against terrorism,” and has led the effort to reorganize intelligence services — a fast career track that the article called both “unlikely” and “mystifying.”

Townsend is a former prosecutor who toiled for both Rudy Guiliani and Janet Reno. The Post points out that her husband, referred to in the piece only as “John,” was “a classmate of Bush’s at Andover and Yale.” It adds that her position was occupied previously by “four-star generals who brought decades of experience to the fight,” but that her greatest asset is “the president’s ear” — not to mention a contribution of the maximum $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in March 2004, an unusual move from a National Security Council staffer, and generally regarded, as U.S. News and World Report put it, as “a pledge of loyalty.”

But there are more questions worthy of exploration than just those about Townsend’s connections. The office she headed while at the Justice Department has also been mired in post-9/11 controversy. Apparently, pre-9/11, it was Townsend who had the power to decide when wiretaps could be authorized. She had to make a distinction between those intended for collecting intelligence, which was more acceptable, and those necessary to pursue criminal investigations, which demanded a higher bar. As U.S. News & World Report noted in its December 2004 profile, “many prosecutors felt that Townsend was less than helpful in making sure the FBI shared wiretap data with lawyers at Main Justice when there was evidence of criminal activity.” Townsend says she was following proper procedure. But US News mentions that “others suspect an ulterior motive. Some Justice Department prosecutors felt Townsend wanted to keep the wall up because it kept prosecutors out of national security investigations, leaving more authority in the hands of Townsend and friendly [FBI] agents.”

“Whatever the case, there were serious consequences,” writes U.S. News. “Both the Government Accountability Office and the 9/11 commission have blamed [Townsend’s office] in part for the government’s intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks. Sources say that [Townsend’s office’s] narrow interpretation of [the wiretap law] led to misunderstandings and overly cautious behavior by the FBI. As a result, in July and August of 2001, FBI intelligence analysts prohibited their own criminal-case agents from searching for two men on the government’s terrorist watch list who they knew had entered the United States. The men later proved to be two of the 19 hijackers.”

This seems like valid information to include when introducing the women who will lead the investigation into the federal government’s response to one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. The Post and U.S. News profiles are good places to start. They both paint the picture of an extremely ambitious and well-connected player, who has achieved a high-level position at the age of 43, and somehow, in the process managed to gain the confidence of high officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Not an easy task. As a former Bush administration official said anonymously (and a bit maliciously) about her in the U.S. News piece, “She’s a trip; she’s one of the most ambitious people I’ve met. She’s always sucking up.”

That’s why we’re puzzled at the lack of coverage of Townsend’s appointment. The woman who told Knight-Ridder in July that “it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would be working for this president,” might be able to do half the job just fine — finding out what went right — but will she really be able to look the president in the eye and tell him what went wrong?

Gal Beckerman

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.