Failed attack on jet renews concerns over lack of TSA chief

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A11

The failed terrorist attack on a packed airliner on Christmas has renewed concerns about the lack of stable leadership at the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. agency on the front lines in preventing exactly that kind of incident.

The TSA has been operating without a permanent top official for almost a year, a result of months of delay by the Obama administration and a political power play by a Republican senator opposed to collective bargaining by government workers.

The result, according to some transportation and security analysts, is an agency unable to muster the political will to make the alterations necessary to adapt to changing international threats.

"What doesn't get done as well is leadership and confident direction-setting," said Stewart A. Baker, who was a top official at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration. "There are plenty of competent people at TSA. But when you are not a political appointee, you have to walk on eggshells a little."

Baker and others say they do not think the security failure of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 would have been avoided if President Obama's nominee -- former FBI agent and police detective Erroll Southers -- had been on the job Friday.

But they say they doubt that Acting Administrator Gale D. Rossides, a Bush appointee, has the political connections within the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress to reinvent the agency in ways that get ahead of terrorists.

"She's competent and knows the system well," said one transportation expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he regularly works with TSA officials. "But she doesn't want to rock the boat. She's basically there to keep the trains on the tracks."

Several analysts said Tuesday that the events of the past week highlight the need for a permanent TSA administrator to move quickly in a number of areas. They say the TSA must find the resources -- financial and otherwise -- to design a "checkpoint of the future" that anticipates emerging threats and to phase out metal-detector technology that dates to the early 1980s.

The agency also needs to design better ways to share and interpret the mountain of passenger data collected by U.S. and foreign agencies, they said. The suspect in Friday's incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, would not have been allowed to board the flight if warning signs about him had been properly shared, Obama said Tuesday.

And some experts say the new TSA administrator must be deeply knowledgeable about security and terrorism, and more willing to be aggressive in shaking up a seven-year-old bureaucracy that does not respond nimbly to current threats.

"It's critical," said Michael Boyd, an airline consultant based in Colorado. "We need an [H. Norman] Schwarzkopf type there who's going say, 'I'm going to start thinking like a terrorist.' We don't have that."

A spokesman for the TSA declined to comment on the critique.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer defended Rossides on Tuesday but reiterated the administration's demand that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) stop blocking Southers's nomination.

"The acting TSA administrator is very able, and we have a solid team of professionals at TSA," Pfeiffer said. "But Senator DeMint and others should put their short-term political interests aside and allow the Senate vote on the confirmation of the president's nominee to head the agency."

Obama nominated Southers on Sept. 11, nearly eight months after taking office, a delay that White House officials say was necessary to identify "the appropriate candidate" for the job.

In the wake of Friday's incident, Republicans have criticized the TSA and the Obama administration. But one of their own has single-handedly prevented new leadership at the agency. DeMint has refused to allow a vote on the nomination as long as Obama insists on permitting TSA workers to participate in collective bargaining negotiations, as other unionized government workers do.

In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," DeMint accused the administration of being intent on "unionizing and submitting our airport security to union bosses [and] collective bargaining."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) criticized Republicans on Tuesday, accusing them of "playing politics with national security" by stalling the nomination.

"Despite his qualifications and being reported out by two Senate committees earlier this year, Republicans have decided to play politics with this nomination by blocking final confirmation," Reid said in a statement. "Not only is this a failed strategy, but a dangerous one as well with serious potential consequences for our country."

Reid vowed to force the nomination to a vote next month. But until that happens, or DeMint relents, the top TSA post will go unfilled.

In addition, the Senate has yet to decide when it will vote on Obama's choice to head the Customs and Border Protection agency, another key post in the fight against terrorism.

Longtime observers of airport security say the TSA vacancy will complicate efforts to implement effective procedures against efforts by terrorists to breach the system.

"During a time when security is so important and we need to think about the strategy going forward, we need to push politics aside," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association.

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