Francis Fragos Townsend was the White House counterterrorism czar from 2004 to 2007 — a much denuded job since Richard Clarke and Rand Beers held it in the Clinton and first George W. Bush administrations — and now she’s here at the New America confederence. What does she think of Al Qaeda’s fortunes today?

She starts out talking about the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, not known as an object of Bush administration focus. But she singles out two important plots — the 2004 attempt on the financial districts New York, New Jersey and Washington and the 2006 attempt on bombing planes leaving from London — and says "both had ties back to the tribal areas in Pakistan." If there’s a major attack on the U.S.,  it would link back there, so there’s "critical importance" to solving the Al Qaeda problem in that region. She highlights the spread of Al Qaeda to "cities and settled areas" in Pakistan, Yemen and Algeria," as well as the 2007 plots against targets in Germany and Denmark. "Al Qaeda understands," she says, "…the importance of safe havens." This really stands an indictment of the administration she worked for, given that it allowed bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora and invaded Iraq while Al Qaeda constituted a new safe haven in the Pakistani tribal areas.

Townsend reminds that Al Qaeda has linked attacks to political changes in Spain and the UK, though she stops short as saying that there may be an attack in the next few weeks. "Couple their understanding with geopolitics and their obvious intent to try to influence it with the current economic crisis." Gulp.

"There’s some good news in this." Well, there better have been! Law enforcement, for instance, is far more focused on Al Qaeda than pre-9/11 and "we have a greater human intelligence capability, particularly in the regions" she’s outlined. Townsend finishes up by worrying about counterterrorism "complacency" in the next administration — and while she says the point stands "regardless of who’s elected" it’s pretty obviously a needless dig at Obama. Somehow, though, she doesn’t apologize for participating in the complacency shown by the Bush administration toward the Al Qaeda safehaven in Pakistan.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman