Obama taps former intelligence officer to lead TSA

President Obama on Monday nominated retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding to become administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

Harding, a career Army intelligence officer for more than three decades, was deputy to the service's top intelligence officer before retiring in 2001. In 2003, he founded Harding Security Associates LLC, a government consulting company, which he sold in 2009, according to a biography provided by the White House.

"Bob's national security expertise and extensive experience in the intelligence community and U.S. Army will be a great asset to the department in our efforts to ensure the safety of the nation's transportation systems," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.

Harding's intelligence background was welcome news to the organization that represents the governing bodies of airports in the United States and Canada. "Airports have long advocated that intelligence must be the cornerstone of effective aviation security," said Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International-North America.

TSA has been without a top executive for the past year. Erroll Southers, Obama's first nominee for the post, withdrew in January after a prolonged battle with Republicans over his involvement in the background security check of his ex-wife's boyfriend two decades ago and fears he would support collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners.

While screeners can join unions, TSA employees do not have collective-bargaining rights and many Republicans oppose the idea, believing it could undermine national security. Harding's views on the subject are not known.

The leaders of the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees issued statements saying Harding appears to be qualified for the job and they would give him the benefit of the doubt.

"It appears his lengthy intelligence background would bring an important and useful perspective to the agency's efforts," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley, adding the union would continue to "pursue full collective bargaining rights for TSA through every available means."

Likewise, AFGE National President John Gage said, "No matter who the next TSA administrator is, the issue of full rights for [Transportation Security officers] at the nation's airports is not going away."

Gage said AFGE plans to redouble efforts to pass the 2009 Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (H.R. 1881), which would give TSA employees collective bargaining rights.

Regardless of his views on labor issues, Harding has extensive experience in managing large organizations and in intelligence. From 1996 to 2000, he was director of operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was the Defense Department's senior human intelligence officer responsible for managing more than $1 billion in intelligence collection program requirements and supervising Defense attachés in more than 200 embassies and offices worldwide.

Management skills and intelligence expertise are needed at TSA. High personnel turnover rates and low morale have long plagued the agency, which is struggling to improve security in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound passenger jet last Christmas.

Harding's experience makes him very qualified to become TSA administrator, said Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

Bancroft described Harding as "very serious and very mission-oriented." Earlier this year, Harding was selected to serve as a board member for the association, a position he likely would have to relinquish if the Senate confirms him.

Leslie Phillips, communications director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., "is pleased a new nominee has been named to fill this critical position, which has gone too long without permanent leadership."

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