Call it the Fran Townsend treatment. Once in 2004, when then Homeland Security Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson tried to beg off giving his department's view on raising the terrorism threat level to orange until he checked with his boss, Tom Ridge, Townsend cut him off. "I need to know now," snapped George W. Bush's top adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security. "The President will be calling, and I have to have an answer." When Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, phoned Townsend earlier this year to complain that the Coast Guard was dragging its feet on sending him an officer as a temporary adviser, she "made some profane remark," he says, "and the next thing I knew the red tape was cut and the guy was sitting in our committee offices." With Bush, "Fran says exactly what's on her mind," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told TIME. "I've heard her say many times in meetings, 'No, Mr. President, that really isn't getting done.'"
That Bush would have an adviser as bare-knuckled as Frances Fragos Townsend, 44, isn't unusual, particularly for a portfolio as vital as counterterrorism. He detests it when aides waste his time clearing their throat before getting to the point, and he has always had an affinity for forceful women like Rice and communications guru Karen Hughes. Still, Townsend's rise to the President's inner circle is remarkable when you consider that she was a Justice Department confidante of Janet Reno's--which made her suspect among conservatives who still love to hate Bill Clinton's Attorney General--and that some counterterrorism professionals question her credentials for the job.
Bush, who relies on gut instinct as much as résumé for personnel decisions, likes having the blunt, 5-ft. former Mob prosecutor at his side. A powerful sign of the respect Bush's loyalty to Townsend commands--or perhaps an indication of lingering Administration defensiveness over her appointment--is that heavyweights like Rice and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten praised Townsend in phone calls to TIME arranged by her office. The President, says Bolten, "likes her competence, her crispness and her ability to give him the straight scoop." Bush has entrusted her with, among other things, the task of implementing sweeping recommendations that a presidential commission made last year for reforming the intelligence community. And he named Townsend the head of a team that tracked last month's British arrests of London bomb-plot suspects. "My job is to focus on the threats and the things that are not resolved," says Townsend. "But you never deliver bad news without the next sentence being what you're doing about it."