Obama nominates Robert A. Harding to lead TSA

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

President Obama nominated retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding on Monday to lead the Transportation Security Administration, selecting someone unknown to the aviation industry and federal unions to lead one of the government's most visible agencies.

Harding retired from the military in 2001 after 33 years of service. He most recently served as director for operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he oversaw security for more than 200 U.S. embassies and government offices around the world. In 2003, he founded a defense and intelligence contracting firm, which he sold in 2009.

Harding serves on the board of directors of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and advised the Obama-Biden transition team on intelligence matters.

"I can think of no one more qualified than Bob to take on this important job, and I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead," Obama said Monday. But Harding is the president's second choice for the post: Erroll Southers was nominated but withdrew from consideration in January following reports that he might have misled Congress about a security incident in the late 1980s.

Aviation industry and union groups said they know little about Harding.

"But that's not necessarily a bad thing," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents about 230 domestic and foreign airlines. "Certainly someone from outside aviation and transportation might bring a fresh perspective to the job."

The Air Transport Association, which represents domestic carriers, also expressed support for Harding but provided little comment.

If confirmed, Harding would face a short honeymoon, Lott said. The TSA, with 45,000 employees, faces significant pressure to revamp the nation's aviation security procedures in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airliner bomb attack. It has also faced several embarrassing reports of airline passenger mistreatment at the hands of airport screeners, which have prompted inquiries by lawmakers.

Harding would also help decide whether to grant collective bargaining rights to TSA workers, an issue that stalled Southers's confirmation for several months amid Republican concerns that he would support unionization. Currently, airport screeners may join unions, but those unions cannot bargain on behalf of workers. The unions said Monday that they, too, know little about Harding.

"We haven't had the opportunity to research this candidate as we have some of the other White House nominees," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "However, if the administration believes him to be the best person to lead TSA, we will trust that decision until given a reason not to."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Monday urged swift confirmation for Harding, calling the TSA job among the most important unfilled posts in the Obama administration.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also said that Harding "should not be subject to partisan delay tactics," and leaders of the Senate commerce and homeland security committees, which will hold hearings on the nomination, pledged to move quickly.

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