Saturday, March 27, 2010

2nd Transportation Security Pick Withdraws: What Mainstream Media Isn't Telling You

President Obama is back to square one - again - in finding a transportation security chief to shore up the nation's defenses against terrorist threats from the air, road and rail.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding took himself out of the running Friday night as head of the Transportation Security Administration. It's another setback for Obama after his first choice withdrew in January because he faced a tough confirmation struggle in Congress.

The Obama administration has called the job the most important unfilled position on Obama's team. But it's also the most disorganized position overseeing the most inefficient cabinet level department.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the federal agency that everyone loves to hate. It makes us arrive hours before our plane flights and makes us jump through more hoops than circus seals do to board them. These sometimes invasive procedures are meant to give us confidence that the federal government is safeguarding the nation's skies. But something is always happening with this department that illustrates why confidence in the TSA is in short supply.

Recently, the TSA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued a request for proposal for an agency screening partnership program. This called for an outdated and redacted version of an air passenger screening manual to be posted at the Federal Business Opportunities Web site. It wasn't until Sunday -- nine months later -- that it was revealed that the hidden information was recoverable. None of it was classified. But there was a trove of potentially useful tidbits for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The 93-page document revealed the kind of wire that doesn't set off alarms on airport screening machines. It pointed out that only 20 percent of all checked bags are hand-searched for explosives. It showed sample identification cards for members of Congress and law enforcement officials. It highlighted the kinds of things that are optional for TSA screeners to inspect, such as wheelchairs and prosthetic devices. Five people have been put on administrative leave until the inspector general of DHS completes a review of what happened.

In the meantime, the TSA is working overtime to convince everyone that air travelers are in no danger. The manual in question has been revised six times and is constantly updated. Besides, agency officials say, there are many layers of security to protect passengers "from the curb to the cockpit." Good to know.

Harding's past as a defense contractor raised complications for his nomination - at least that's what everyone would like for you to think.

He had extensive intelligence experience that Obama hoped to tap in fortifying security against attacks such as the Christmas bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit, which was foiled by passengers. The agency's primary mission is to keep commercial aviation safe from terrorism, but its responsibilities cover threats by land and ferry as well.

Harding retired from the Army in 2001, ending a three-decade career during which he served as the Defense Department's top human intelligence officer, managing a $1 billion intelligence collection program.

He became a government consultant on human intelligence and counterintelligence, selling his company in 2009.

Questions arose after his nomination about a contract his company had with the government to provide interrogators in Iraq. After the government ended the contract early, in 2004, Harding Security Associates claimed more money from termination of the contract than the Defense Department's inspector general said it was entitled to get. The firm refunded $1.8 million of that money in a 2008 settlement with the Defense Intelligence Agency. However, it was a simple matter of the DoD not reading the contract - something the bureaucrats in the Pentagon are know for.

TSA employees have become the bad boys of Homeland Security: they leak information to the media, they play pranks on unsuspecting fliers, they have no real training and even have hired convicted felons - so there's no real vetting of applicants - just like special positions within the Obama administration. Additionally, TSA practically has a How To Manual for Terrorists on their website. Retired US army generals are pretty smart and a major general like Harding - knowing full well how Washington works - would not take a position as this and end up being the fall guy for trying to fix a broken department.

A little over two months ago, Erroll Southers withdrew his nomination to lead the TSA after it became apparent he would have trouble winning confirmation. Questions were raised about a reprimand that Southers, a top official with the Los Angeles Airport Police Department, had received for running background checks on his then-estranged wife's boyfriend two decades ago. He acknowledged giving Congress inconsistent answers on the matter.

Obama had waited eight months before nominating Southers. Now Harding's withdrawal means more delays in filling the top job in transportation security.

The announcement about Harding came late Friday, a period favored by the government for releasing uncomfortable news because the public's attention is light. There was no immediate word on finding another nominee.

The White House; Reuters; TSA; AP; UPI.

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