Transportation Security Administration nominee Maj. Gen. Robert Harding told senators last week that he hoped to quickly transform aviation security by having screeners interact more with airline passengers and moving "closer to an Israeli model."
That change — and others similar to it — will not likely happen any time soon because Harding withdrew Friday as President Obama's nominee for TSA administrator, citing lawmakers' questions about military contracts with a security company he started in 2001 after retiring from the Army.
Harding's withdrawal comes two months after Obama's first nominee to head the TSA, Erroll Southers, dropped out, and it raises concerns that the TSA won't be able to implement or adjust policy at a crucial time in the nation's efforts to better secure the skies.
"In order to champion bold new initiatives, you do need a leader who is confirmed and firmly in charge," RAND Corp. security analyst Brian Jenkins said. The TSA has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since Obama took office and is being run by acting Administrator Gale Rossides, a TSA veteran.
The Homeland Security Department, which oversees the TSA, downplays the impact of having no permanent TSA leader. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has worked with TSA leaders "to implement major aviation security enhancements," department press secretary Clark Stevens said.
Since the failed attempt to bomb an airliner flying near Detroit on Christmas Day, Napolitano has reached agreements with several dozen countries to improve their aviation security. Napolitano also directed the TSA to accelerate the installation of body scanners at U.S. airports — a program launched under President George W. Bush.
Loss of momentum
Some aviation officials worry that the absence of a permanent TSA chief will stall efforts to refine the Homeland Security Department's largest agency.
"We're concerned that the longer we go without a TSA leader, we're going to lose some of the momentum needed to make reforms," said Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines.
Lott and others point to changes that former TSA chief Kip Hawley made after his appointment by Bush in 2005 that changed how fliers interact with airport screeners and what items they could carry through security checkpoints. Hawley's changes:
• Reversed bans on passengers carrying small scissors, tools and lighters onto airplanes. That was an effort to have screeners focus more on scouring carry-on bags for homemade bombs, which Hawley said were the biggest threat to airplanes, instead of finding objects that posed little danger.
• Launched a program that trains screeners to spot passengers in airport terminals who appear suspicious. More than 3,000 screeners now have such training.
• Improved workplace conditions for screeners and helped reduce turnover and on-the-job injuries.
"Those kind of decisions just don't happen with an acting administrator," said Randall Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security. "Gale (Rossides) is fully qualified to run the day-to-day operations, but none of the big decisions about so many difficult issues are going to be made."
TSA screener A.J. Castilla said Harding's withdrawal demoralized workers who had been elated by the nomination of a retired two-star general.
"There's something about having a U.S. general say, I want to lead this workforce, I believe in your effort," said Castilla, who works at Boston's Logan International Airport and is an officer in a TSA union.
Harding, 62, said in a statement that "distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this Administration nor the Department of Homeland Security." Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned Harding on Wednesday about payments to his former company, Harding Security Associates.
President Obama acknowledged the importance of having top Homeland Security officials Saturday when he appointed Alan Bersin to head Customs and Border Protection, a sister agency to TSA. The Senate had stalled the confirmation of Bersin and 14 other top officials, Obama said in making the "recess appointments" that allow the nominees to serve temporarily without Senate confirmation.
"I must act in the interest of the American people," Obama said in a statement.