WASHINGTON – President Barack 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, 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.
Harding's past as a defense contractor raised complications for his nomination.
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.
"I feel that the distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this administration nor for the Department of Homeland Security," Harding said in a late-evening statement released by the White House. The Transportation Security Administration is part of Homeland Security.
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.
"By nominating Gen. Harding, the president tapped an individual with more than 35 years of military and intelligence experience who is dedicated to improving the security of our nation," said White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro. "The president is disappointed in this outcome but remains confident in the solid team of professionals at TSA."
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