Fran Townsend: “This war is by no means over”

May 3, 2011, 7:54 PM UTC

by Leigh Gallagher and Patricia Sellers

FORTUNE — Less than 24 hours after Washington and the world learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces, Bush Administration homeland security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend sat on a State Department stage before a group of Washington’s most powerful women and lauded President Obama for acting with courage beyond most people’s comprehension.

“For those of you here in this room not sitting in that White House, there’s almost no words that can capture the difficult burden of a President making that decision,” she told an audience that included U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) , Brigadier General Heidi Brown, and more than 100 women business leaders from around the world.

Townsend, who is now a senior vice president at the investment firm MacAndrews and Forbes, went on to describe how harrowing Obama’s decision-making had to have been leading up to the weekend assassination in Pakistan. “The intelligence is never 100% clear,” she said, noting that the attack could easily have backfired for a multitude of reasons. One false move, she said, and bin Laden could have survived, taken the soldiers hostage and tortured them for all the world to see.

“Every one of those special ops assumed they weren’t going to come back,” she said.

Even worse, she went on, the President was viewing the whole thing in real time—which meant he ran the risk of having to watch bin Laden kill the American soldiers Obama had sent in. “That’s a lot different from having to write the condolence notes for soldiers who [had already] been killed,” Townsend said.

For these reasons, she said, “I think this was among the most courageous decisions that the President could have made.”

From 2004 until 2008, Townsend served in the Bush Administration as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. It was a job that put her at the center of post-9/11 efforts to defeat al Qaeda and block future terrorists attacks, including the 2006 plot to blow up 10 passenger jets en route from the United Kingdom to the U.S. and Canada.

Fortune’s Washington columnist Nina Easton, who conducted the Monday evening interview, asked Townsend if she’d been in touch with her former boss since the news of bin Laden’s death broke Sunday night. “We’ve been emailing back and forth,” Townsend said, adding that she admired President Bush for steering clear of the media this week. “I give him credit,” she said. “It was President Obama’s decision and his success, and [Bush] has refused to give any press.” The weekend mission, she noted, was built on years of building up U.S. intelligence and anti-terror military capabilities.

Even as she praised President Obama, Townsend cautioned that a bigger test may be yet to come. Managing America’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, where bin Laden was able to hide out, will be trickier than ever. Meanwhile, America remains vulnerable to a counterattack, she said, and she worries most about terrorists striking American facilities overseas. “Make no mistake. They’re in disarray tonight,” she said. “But we still have threats.”

“The war is by no means over.”

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