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President’s pick to head TSA withdraws name, cites politics

Says confirmation process gave him second thoughts

“They took an apolitical person and politicized my career,’’ Erroll Southers said in an interview. “They took an apolitical person and politicized my career,’’ Erroll Southers said in an interview.
By Julie Pace
Associated Press / January 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON - President Obama’s choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration withdrew his name yesterday, a setback for an administration still trying to explain how a man could attempt to blow up a commercial airliner on Christmas Day.

Erroll Southers said he was pulling out because his nomination had become a lightning rod for those with a political agenda. Obama had tapped Southers, a top official with the Los Angeles Airport Police Department, to lead the TSA in September, but his confirmation has been blocked by Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who says he was worried that Southers would allow TSA employees to have collective bargaining rights.

Southers said the confirmation process made him question his willingness to participate in public service. “I am not a politician. I’m a counterrrorism expert,’’ Southers said in an interview. “They took an apolitical person and politicized my career.’’

Southers said he couldn’t give DeMint a definitive answer on the collective bargaining issue because it wasn’t a yes or no question and required access to information he wouldn’t have had until he was confirmed.

DeMint said in a statement that answering simple, direct questions about security and integrity appeared to have been too much for Southers.

Questions have also been raised about a reprimand that Southers received for running background checks on his then-estranged wife’s boyfriend two decades ago. Southers, a former FBI agent, wrote a letter to lawmakers earlier this month acknowledging that he had given inconsistent answers to Congress on that issue.

In an October affidavit for the Senate Homeland Security committee, Southers initially said he asked a San Diego police employee to run a background check on his then-estranged wife’s boyfriend and was censured by his FBI superiors 20 years ago for what he said was an isolated incident.

But a day after the committee approved his nomination and sent it to the full Senate, he wrote to the senators and told them he was incorrect, that he had twice run background checks himself.

The White House said Obama had accepted Southers’s withdrawal with great sadness and continued to believe he would have made an excellent TSA administrator.

The withdrawal of Southers’s nomination was another setback for the TSA at a time when the government is still trying to answer questions from Congress about how a man was able to carry out a bombing attempt on Christmas Day on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Democrats had lined up behind Southers’s nomination after the botched attack, with Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader, saying he would call for a full Senate vote on his confirmation this year.

The administration has been beset by problems with intelligence and security nominees. It took Obama eight months to nominate people to lead TSA and Customs and Border Protection - two key security agencies that play large roles in preventing another terrorist attack.

Senate Democrats also have accused Republicans of stalling the nomination of Caryn Wagner, the administration’s nominee to be the top intelligence official at the Homeland Security Department. In June, Obama’s initial pick for intelligence chief at Homeland Security withdrew his nomination amid questions about his role in the CIA’s interrogations of suspected terrorists. The inability to analyze disparate pieces of information has been at the core of the failure to stop the attempted attack on Christmas.