WASHINGTON, D.C. — Errol Southers was nominated last August by President Obama to be director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but his confirmation has been delayed in the Senate, meaning the agency that deals directly with aviation security has been without a leader for nearly six months. Couple this with the security confusion following the failed Christmas day attempt to blow up an international flight to Detroit and the potential for significant new regulations affecting all who fly could increase.
A confirmation hearing for Southers was held up when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) placed a hold on it, prompted by concern that the nominee would not oppose unionization of the TSA workforce. Unionization has been rejected by previous TSA administrators, the FBI, CIA, Coast Guard and Secret Service.
This concern was augmented by charges that Southers lied to Congress during a committee hearing, declaring that when he was an FBI agent he never asked police in San Diego to access records of his ex-wife’s boyfriend, a violation of privacy laws. Later, after receiving an endorsement from the Senate homeland security committee, he said he had accessed records on at least two occasions and forwarded them to the San Diego police. DeMint said Southers had misled Congress in sworn testimony. “If he can’t tell the truth,” DeMint said, “he is not qualified and should not be confirmed.”
Six other senators and at least one member of the House have joined DeMint in his efforts to get to the bottom of the questions about Southers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants to move quickly to confirm Southers but at this time there seems to be little movement to provide the information DeMint and others want. A White House spokesperson said officials did not know of discrepancies in Southers’ statements until two months after his nomination and the confirmation process was well on its way.
The flap over the Christmas day incident is heightening the political finger pointing and bringing more politicians into the security issue with greater interest. Sen. John J. Rockefeller (D-W.Va) called a hearing of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Jan. 20 to explore the question, “is the current system capable of meeting the threat?” He has frequently expressed his concerns that general aviation offers security problems. Whether or not this issue will affect the TSA nomination and the agency’s actions is being closely watched.
DeMint has called TSA “one of the most critical security agencies in the war on terror.” Despite its importance, its leadership has been in upheaval. There have been five directors in the six years of the agency’s existence, prompting one TSA employee to quip, “if my boss calls, get his name.”
That turnover is also why Washington aviation interests are closely watching the present attempt to fill the position. People and organizations that deal directly with government offices are reluctant to say anything negative that might affect their relationships with the agency.
A major interest, however, is that whoever finally gets the post is permitted and committed to open discussions, following up on President Obama’s pledges that the government would be “transparent” in its actions and programs. Aviation interests want TSA to be open in its actions and open for input from those directly affected by its regulations and actions. Closed door procedures in other areas of government increase the concern some aviation groups have about TSA and its potentially onerous security regulations.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.