WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration parried questions from senators Wednesday about his security firm's business in Iraq and his views on unionizing airport screeners, keeping his nomination on track for consideration after the Spring recess.
Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, a 33-year retired veteran of military intelligence, is the Obama administration's second pick to run the TSA, a crucial position that has been vacant since January 2009. The first choice, Erroll Southers, withdrew his name from nomination in January after Republican lawmakers raised questions about his apparent willingness to grant collective bargaining rights to security screeners at U.S. airports.
Gen. Harding told members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that he hoped to beef up the TSA's intelligence and enhance airport screening both in the U.S. and overseas to make incidents such as the attempted attack by the Christmas Day airline bomber harder to pull off in the future.
He also said that, if confirmed, he would review the question of granting TSA staffers collective-bargaining rights—a contentious point since the administration's creation in 2002—though Gen. Harding stressed he would not "negotiate away" security. Some lawmakers fear granting airport screeners collective bargaining rights could limit the TSA's flexibility to move workers from one airport to another in response to threats and emergencies.
Gen. Harding faced questions from senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.) over the attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25. Gen. Harding said that, in addition to "improving the connections" between the TSA and the U.S. intelligence community, he hoped to encourage the use of advanced technology, such as enhanced screening machines, to boost aviation security.
"Our objective in using these technologies is clear: to strengthen our abilities to find dangerous materials and to stop dangerous people," Gen. Harding said in prepared testimony.
He also faced questions for the second straight day over the security firm he founded after leaving the military, especially over the firm's contract to provide interrogators in Iraq in 2004.
Gen. Harding's firm, Harding Security Associates, was initially contracted to provide interrogators and debriefers for duty in Iraq in early 2004 under a contract with the Pentagon, but the contracts were cancelled after only four months. That led to a contract dispute and an audit by the Pentagon which found that Harding Security Associates had over-billed the government. The firm eventually settled the matter by paying back the government about $1.8 million, Gen. Harding said.
He also told senators that he had no conflicts of interest related to the security firm, which he sold in 2009, and which did business with major defense and security contractors. The White House said last week that Gen. Harding would recuse himself from doing business with his former firm and other big contractors he had worked closely with until July 2011, two years after he sold his stake in the firm.