Senators to press TSA nominee on Iraq contract audit

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding is facing the first of two confirmation hearings Tuesday as President Obama's choice to head the Transportation Security Administration, with senators likely to scrutinize the intelligence work done by the company he founded, and his experience in aviation and transportation security.

Republicans are expected to ask Harding to explain publicly the interrogation work Harding Security Associates conducted in Iraq in 2004 and how it ended up having to reimburse the government nearly $2 million.

"I think that's an issue that will most likely come up," a GOP aide said. Harding is scheduled to face the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday as Democrats work to fill a high-profile security post that has been vacant ever since Obama took office.

The company, which Harding founded in 2003, was sold in July. It was contracted by the Defense Intelligence Agency from February 2004 to August 2004 to provide interrogation services in support of the Iraq Survey Group, according to the Obama administration.

The Defense Contract Audit Agency found erroneous billing by the company relating to the interrogation work, resulting in the $2 million repayment, congressional aides learned last week.

But a senior Democratic aide said Monday that the contract repayment arose from a standard procurement audit for contracts above $100,000, and was resolved and paid under normal procedures.

The aide said Harding has gone above what is required in terms of his ethics agreement and his record has not raised any cause for concern.

Defense records also confirm that no Harding Security personnel worked at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the aide said. At least two of the company's job postings for interrogators or debriefers in Iraq said the work would support a center on the military's Abu Ghraib forward operating base.

Harding Security Associates has described itself as a defense and intelligence contracting business, and Harding is expected to face questions about what other work the company has done.

When he was nominated March 8, the White House said Harding had "over 35 years working in the intelligence community, including 33 years in the Army." From 1996-2000, he served as director of operations at DIA, where the White House said he was "the Department of Defense's senior Human Intelligence (HUMINT) officer" and managed "over $1 billion in intelligence collection program requirements."

Another issue likely to come up is whether Harding favors giving airport screeners collective bargaining rights, which have been long sought for them by labor unions. Screeners can join unions, but TSA does not recognize collective bargaining agreements.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who serves on the Commerce Committee, led opposition to Obama's first pick to head TSA, Erroll Southers, partly over the collective bargaining issue.

Officials from two nonprofit trade associations Harding is involved with gave him positive reviews Monday. Harding now serves on the board of advisers of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and as a board member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He served on the INSA board of directors from October 2005 to September 2008, and co-chaired the group's Council on Domestic Intelligence, which no longer exists.

Frank Blanco, INSA executive vice president, described the nominee as "very thoughtful, very insightful, very thorough."

S. Eugene Poteat, president of AFIO, said Harding "has a most impressive history in the Army, including intelligence assignments, and is highly regarded, which is why he was selected to be on the AFIO board."

Blanco and Poteat said they would expect to hear from Harding whether he will retain his positions within their respective organizations if he is confirmed.

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