Democrats, who have demanded an independent probe along the lines of the 9/11 Commission and have rejected the principle of an internal inquiry into Katrina failures, went even further: "There is a huge conflict of interest here," said Rebecca Kirszner, communications director for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "As the President's homeland security adviser, Townsend certainly was part of the Administration's response to Katrina."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to directly address such criticism, saying Wednesday that "the President has said he is committed to finding out what went wrong and what went right and the lessons to be learned. We are also committed to fully supporting the congressional investigation in addition to this internal review."
Townsend, according to a 2003 Executive Order issued in the course of establishing the Department of Homeland Security, is "the official primarily responsible for advising and assisting the President in the coordination of domestic incident management activities of all departments and agencies in the event of a terrorist threat, and during and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, major disasters, or other emergencies, within the United States."
A holdover from the Clinton Administration, the former prosecutor has served in a number of counter-terrorism capacities in both the previous and current administrations. Top-level liaison with allied governments and intelligence agencies on terrorism matters has been a major aspect of her work one that she relishes, according to a knowledgable former U.S. official.
Despite the domestic upheaval caused by Katrina, Townsend left town on September 9 the day then-FEMA director Michael Brown was relieved of his duties supervsing the hurricane response for a previously-scheduled five-day trip for consultations with intelligence chiefs in such countries as Morocco and Afghanistan, as well as with Saudi Arabia's new ruler, King Abdullah bin-Abdulaziz.
Critics have questioned whether it was appropriate for her to have made that trip as the administration scrambled to respond to Katrina. Perino had previously told TIME that President Bush had wanted Townsend to remain focused on vigilance against possible terrorist attack. "From the beginning it was important that we also stay focused on our national security and so, as her title is both homeland security and counter-terrorism [adviser], this trip, which was already scheduled way in advance, went forward," Perino said. Perino said Townsend had delegated Katrina duties to Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Ken Rapuano, who had "been engaged from well before the storm hit the coast." Still, Perino said, Townsend stayed personally involved in the response: "She was certainly engaged I should say strongly engaged up through the Friday night and then went on her previously-scheduled trip to fulfill her counter-terrorism responsibilities, but received updates and participated in the response efforts during her travel."