TSA Leaderless, Challenged After Second Nominee Bows Out

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 12:19 PM EDT

It's been more than a year and the Transportation Security Administration still doesn't have a leader. Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding bowed out of the running only two weeks after he was nominated by President Barack Obama when his U.S. Army disability was found to be sleep apnea. Harding faced scrutiny over his multi-million dollar consulting contracts with the U.S. government, including one where his consulting company was overpaid. (Former nominee Erroll G. Southers, an ex-FBI agent, withdrew late last year after giving conflicting reports about running background checks on a man seeing his estranged wife.)

Now Obama must go back to the drawing board and find someone - at this point anyone without a skeleton in their closet - who can be nominated to head up the department responsible for our aviation security.

The position has been empty for months now, and so far has dealt with at least one major security issue - when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite an explosive in his underwear on Christmas Day on Delta/Northwest Flight 253. The TSA, then without a leader for almost a year, gave new rules and guidelines preventing anyone from getting up in the last hour of a flight or the pilot pointing out any geographical information - all for security purposes. The so-called security measures were in reality a knee-jerk reaction, a feeling the department should do something - anything - regardless of how silly.

It further underlined the need for leadership in the agency so the agency could act in any timely and meaningful way.

"The lack of a confirmed leader disables the ability of any administration to effect the type of change that it wants to," said Paul Rosenzweig, a former adviser to the TSA under President George W. Bush. "Change comes slow to the federal government. It's a bureaucracy, and it's impossible to achieve change without concerted leadership."

The new TSA chief will have to study and decide how to rollout body scanners to airports at a price tag of $2 billion. This comes after new reports say that the scanners haven't gone through a cost-benefit analysis and may not be able to detect explosives like those found on the Christmas Day bomber. There are also labor issues regarding collective bargaining units for airport screeners that have stalled much of the nominations, with conservative senators not wanting to confirm union-friendly nominees.

The new leader also has the power to change or modify rules that hurt rather than help fliers and security. The last changes that occurred were by Kip Hawley, a Bush administration appointee, in 2005. Hawley left in January 2009.

"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 told USA Today.

Any new TSA nomination made by Obama is expected to stall in the Senate mainly because of partisan politics rather than common sense or necessity. But maybe one might sneak through, provided he or she has managed to have a multi-decade career without tailing an ex-spouse, taking more money than promised or mishandling funds. Photo: TSA