It has now been over 14 months, and the Obama administration still hasn’t successfully appointed a person to run the Transportation Security Administration, the agency that provides security at the nation’s airports. Barack Obama didn’t even get around to nominating a candidate until September 2009, and his first choice, Errol Southers, had to withdraw when earlier incidents of Southers’ abuses of sensitive information surfaced. Late yesterday his second choice, retired General Robert Harding, also withdrew, this time over allegations of potential procurement fraud:
President Obama’s choice to lead the agency that guards United States airports abruptly withdrew his nomination on Friday night amid questions about his work as a defense contractor, the second time the White House has lost a nominee for the critical security post.
Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, a retired Army intelligence officer, was selected to take over the Transportation Security Administration, or T.S.A., just two and a half weeks ago, following the withdrawal of Mr. Obama’s first pick under fire. …
But it was his work after the military that drew scrutiny. His firm, Harding Security Associates, provided intelligence debriefers in Iraq, but after the government ended a $49.2 million contract early in 2004, an audit found that the firm received an overpayment and collected more money for termination costs than it should have.
The audit questioned $2.4 million of the $6 million actually paid to the firm, according to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. In the end, General Harding told the committee Thursday that his firm was forced to refund $1.8 million in a negotiated settlement in 2008.
Harding had been one of The 300 during the campaign — one of the large number of national-security advisers Obama claimed whenever anyone challenged his experience in such matters. Perhaps there really is safety in numbers. No one in the McCain campaign or in the RNC appeared to notice that the candidate of Hope and Change, the Washington insider running against Washington, had an adviser who had overcharged the government as a defense contractor. Obama may have figured that no one would spot it when Harding was out in the open as a nominee, either.
This is a fairly egregious vetting error, even for an administration becoming known as incompetent at assessing potential appointees. Harding didn’t commit violations of personal tax returns, after all. He spent several years as a government contractor, and the audit and overcharge are public record. For that matter, so was Southers’ dip into sensitive databases for his own personal vendettas. Does anyone at the White House actually bother with background checks, or do they just pull names out of a hat?
The Times reports that the White House has no third choice for this position. We can expect several months to pass before Obama gets around to appointing a replacement for a key national-security post. Perhaps by the time he’s finished with this term, we may actually get one that can survive a confirmation hearing.