USC Price School of Public Policy

Former Homeland Security adviser warns against complacency

Former Homeland Security Adviser Warns Against Complacency

By Matthew Kredell

Former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser Frances Townsend Frances Townsend speaks at a USC CREATE event.
Photo by Srdjan Simonovic

Watch the video of the presentation »

Complacency poses the greatest threat to the United States a decade after 9/11, former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser Frances Townsend said on Aug. 10 as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series presented by USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).

“Lots of people think this threat is gone,” Townsend said. “Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is weakened. That’s all true, all good news. The problem is you still have groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb along the Mali-Mauritania border. They’re not going away. To the extent we let our guard down and are unwilling to continue to innovate and keep our commitments to the security of this nation, we will be sadly disappointed when there’s another attack.”

Townsend served as an adviser for President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2008, following 13 years at the U.S. Justice Department. Currently, she works as a contributor to CNN on issues of counterterrorism and national security, and is the senior vice president at MacAndrews and Forbes Holdings Inc.

Frances Townsend and Erroll Southers Frances Townsend with CREATE Associate Director Erroll Southers
Photo by Srdjan Simonovic

Townsend is the eighth speaker in the series, which began three years ago to provide a forum for noted experts to share their insight.

“From the Iran nuclear threat to the cyber threat, from homegrown violent extremism to the congressional politicization of our national security, Fran Townsend’s provocative and candid talk captured the audience and the essence of the CREATE Distinguished Speaker Series,” said Erroll Southers, CREATE associate director, who coordinates the series.

Townsend went over national security issues that the next president, whether it will be Barack Obama again or Republican challenger Mitt Romney, will have to address. These issues included cyber capability, counterproliferation, bio-defense and information sharing.

She stressed the significance of cyber security in an age when computers are the backbone of the nation’s military logistics system and are responsible for billions of dollars of commerce. She would like to see a global policy think tank similar to the RAND Corp. focused solely on researching cyber issues.

“Our confidence in the cyber-based economy is critically important,” Townsend said. “How we defend that and how we use that offensively is actually quite important. We need a [think tank] that is absolutely devoted to the cyber issue full time, that looks at the policy implications, the legal implications and the privacy implications. I don’t think we’ve had enough debate about the privacy implications of cyber.”

Townsend worries that, in a time of fiscal constraint, programs such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will not be funded, leaving the U.S. unprepared for the possibility of a biological attack.

While Townsend sees the sharing of information between governmental agencies as improving, she doesn’t think it is where it needs to be. “Instead of being a need-to-know culture, we need to be a need-to-share culture.”

Though Townsend pointed to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb as areas of concern, it is Syria that she fears could end up becoming for President Obama what Rwanda was for President Bill Clinton. She advocates for U.S. military to enter Syria.

“When there is a vacuum and a government that cannot exert control over its own territory, al-Qaeda will fill that vacuum,” Townsend warned. “… If we do not address the vacuum and give some support for the rebels while they are fighting and have a chance, we will lose them and lose them for decades, creating a sort of pre-9/11 Afghanistan where al-Qaeda is embedded in that territory far better than we are. We have a national security imperative to get Syria right. I think it is vitally important that we act imminently.”

CREATE Director Stephen Hora said he was able to gain significant insight from Townsend’s presentation. “She’s very knowledgeable, very deep-thinking and wired into what’s going on in Washington,” he said.