Human Intelligence

An Interview with Fran Townsend

Fran Townsend has had a ringside view of U.S. national security operations since the 1990’s. She has gained a reputation for clear-sighted analysis of daunting problems. Here, she talks about the main strategic threats facing the U.S., including cyber, and whether our intelligence agencies have learned from their mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere.


Octavian Report: What are the main strategic threats facing the U.S. at the moment?

Fran Townsend: The most obvious one, I think, is North Korea. We ought to be honest: three prior administrations have failed in working against this problem. Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama. This is the fourth administration to confront the problem, each time it’s got increasingly more threatening. If you listen to Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Chinese are doing more than they’ve ever done, they’re doing now what the administration is asking of them. There is no way for us to know publicly if that’s exactly right, but applying additional pressure and sanctions to the North Koreans is extremely important because they’re at a very dangerous point.

We’re seeing increasing activity by the Taliban and terrorists in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq — hotspots around the world. I think much of this instability in the Arab Gulf and the Middle East in particular stems from Iran. Certainly the Iranian threat has seized the attention of the White House and national security policymakers, whether it’s their undermining of the elected government in Lebanon, their support of the Houthi tribes in Yemen, their support of the Assad regime in Syria, undermining the government in Bahrain — the list goes on.

The regional aggression of the Iranians undergirds a lot of the instability in the region, and I think that the President has made clear that not only will he not tolerate it, but that he’s going to support our Sunni Arab allies.

Every President is going to have to have terrorism at the top of their list as a national security concern. It has morphed over time in terms of the way that threat manifests itself, but this administration, like the previous ones (including the one I served in), worries every day about the terrorist threat to the homeland — as we saw last Halloween in New York — as well as to American interests around the world.

OR: Do you see an upswing in “lone wolf” or “known wolf” attacks as ISIS faces increasing pressure on its Middle Eastern operations?

Townsend: We’ve always worried about this, whether it’s ISIS, or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or al-Qaeda in Iraq. As you are successful in a conflict zone, a hot zone, there will be bleedouts and foreign fighters. I think we’ve seen the first manifestations of that, unfortunately, in our Western European allies. You've seen attacks in Brussels, and France, and Germany. I think we would have been remiss if we didn’t expect we ourselves would see some of that. I think as they lose battlespace and ground, we ought to expect they’re going to look for other ways to prove that that doesn’t mean they’ve lost all power.

I hate the term “lone wolf,” because in some ways, it’s never quite black-and-white like that. Whether he’s been listening to tapes of a radical preacher like Anwar al-Awlaki or — in the case of the guy in lower Manhattan on Halloween — he’s been in chat rooms on platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp used by ISIS. He may be acting on his own here, but with some inspiration or some connection back to the ideology, and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that. That highlights, if you will, the importance of the social media companies taking some responsibility for the platforms they provide, and not allowing these bad guys to take advantage of those platforms.

I’m also the president of the Counter-Extremism Project, which I founded with Ambassador Mark Wallace and Senator Joe Lieberman several years ago. We’ve been very successful in pushing these companies to do more, and they are doing more, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to continue to push to make sure that they invest the resources to take speech that incites violence down off their platform. I think that this will be a threat that we’ll be wrestling with for some time.

OR: What do you make of the state of cyber as a domain seen through the lens of U.S. national security interests? Do you think that there is a likelihood of cyber conflict spilling over into attacks on the electrical grid here?

Townsend: Here’s the good news on the cyber front. I put the first presidential decision directive on cyber on President George W. Bush’s desk, and that was then handed off to the Obama administration that used that work plan and built on it. Cyber has been an area where — blessedly! — it has been less partisan, where people worked diligently across multiple administrations and different parties. Having said that, I think the U.S. government, writ large, has been slow to recognize it as a domain. I think initially we regarded it as a capability. It was a good capability for us and it was an enabler for terrorists, which meant it was also a capability that the U.S. intelligence and national security community could potentially exploit. We looked at it as a means, as an enabler, as opposed to a domain.

I think the U.S. national security community has matured. We see cyber now as a domain, just as we do land, sea, and air, and we have to have a strategy for that domain. Within the Trump administration, Tom Bossert is working on the president’s cyber strategy. What is most worrying is an attack that crosses multiple domains. Imagine an attack on the electrical grid coupled with a kinetic attack. I think we’ve got to be prepared for that. I think being prepared for that means co-ordinating with the private sector, understanding what our resilience is, because in the kind of attack you suggest against the electrical grid, redundancy and resilience will be key to minimizing the impact. I think it’s really a matter of understanding our vulnerabilities, trying to mitigate those vulnerabilities, and then planning for resilience and redundancy.

OR: You were tasked with implementing the Iraq Intelligence Commission’s recommendations. How do you regard that implementation as having gone, and do the problems that produced some of those intelligence issues still plague the U.S. intelligence community?