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Second TSA nominee withdraws his name

By Spencer S. Hsu and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010; A05

The Obama administration's second choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration withdrew from consideration Friday, days after senators questioned his business and personal dealings as a military contractor who provided services ranging from Iraq war interrogators to private guards at the White House.

"Distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this Administration nor the Department of Homeland Security," retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding said in a late-evening statement released by the White House.

"The president is disappointed in this outcome," Obama spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said in a separate statement.

Obama's previous nominee, Los Angeles airport police executive Errol Southers, withdrew from consideration in January. He blamed stalling tactics by Republicans opposed to extending collective bargaining rights to TSA employees, but his withdrawal also followed disclosures that he gave Congress and the White House misleading information about incidents two decades ago.

When it nominated Harding three weeks ago, the administration presented him as a military and intelligence veteran with 33 years of military service, including as director for operations of the Defense Intelligence Agency and deputy to the Army's chief of intelligence.

Harding advised the Obama transition team on intelligence matters, but he was little known to the aviation industry or government worker unions before his nomination.

Privately, two sources tracking Harding's nomination said he grew frustrated by the confirmation process. Lawmakers were surprised to learn, after the White House put forward his name, that his defense and intelligence company did business with TSA and Homeland Security Department contractors. He formed the firm in 2003 and sold it last year.

Lawmakers also raised questions about a contract with the DIA that was terminated after $6 million worth of work. Harding Security Associates agreed to return to the government $1.8 million that he had tried to pay as severance to 40 of his interrogators assigned to Iraqi prisons.

Contrary to initial White House statements, the company provided interrogation-related work at a Baghdad prison, although it did not have any direct involvement with abuses committed there, congressional aides said.

Lawmakers also asked about five inspector-general investigations during Harding's military career. Harding was cleared of allegations, but senators sought additional information.

Harding was asked at hearings this week if he supported extending bargaining rights to TSA workers, but he said only that the TSA "would never bargain away security."

His withdrawal creates more delays in filling one of the administration's top remaining vacancies, 14 months after Obama took office, a vulnerability made clear after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest jetliner by an alleged al-Qaeda operative.

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