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TSA nominee withdraws his bid, blames politics

Republican senators had blocked the nomination of Erroll Southers, an assistant chief of airport police for Los Angeles.

January 21, 2010|By Mark Silva

Reporting from Washington — Erroll Southers, President Obama's choice to head the Transportation Security Administration, withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday, dealing a setback to an agency still grappling with the security failures that led to an alleged attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day.

Southers, whose nomination had been blocked by Republican opposition, complained in a statement Wednesday that he had become a political lightning rod.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Southers said the confirmation process made him question his willingness to participate in public service.

"I am not a politician. I'm a counter-terrorism expert," said Southers, assistant chief of airport police in Los Angeles. "They took an apolitical person and politicized my career."

The White House accepted Southers' withdrawal while maintaining that he would have made an excellent TSA administrator.

Obama nominated Southers, a former FBI agent, in September to head the TSA. But Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who complained that Southers hoped to make good on an Obama pledge to allow TSA workers to join unions, had placed a hold on his confirmation by the Senate.

Southers also had faced questions over an event years ago, when he had ordered criminal background checks on the boyfriend of his estranged wife.

He acknowledged in a letter to senators that it was wrong, saying that he regretted the incident. He had been censured by his FBI superiors for the action 20 years ago.

"Americans deserve a leader at TSA with integrity and with an unwavering commitment to putting security ahead of politics," DeMint said in a statement Wednesday.

He said the White House had never responded to requests for more information about Southers' testimony during his committee confirmation hearing about the background checks.

"And Mr. Southers was never forthcoming about his intentions to give union bosses veto power over security decisions at our airports," DeMint said.

Southers maintained that he had no intention of sacrificing security in the interest of collective bargaining for TSA screeners.

His withdrawal was a further blow to the leaderless agency, which has been criticized after the alleged attempt on Christmas Day to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. In that incident, a suspect allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear, but the device failed, burning him. The plane landed safely.

After the incident, congressional leaders had called for a speedy confirmation of Southers to lead the TSA, which has 50,000 inspectors and security officers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had said he would seek to force the confirmation over Republican objections in the Senate.

However, the Democrats' 60-vote super-majority in the Senate, which enables the party to override GOP filibusters, evaporated with the loss Tuesday of a Senate seat in Massachusetts. In a special election, Republican Scott Brown won the seat held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

The forfeiture of the administration's nominee in the face of Republican objections may also be the first sign of the effect of that election victory.

Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn., said his group was saddened by Southers' decision to withdraw.

"The TSA desperately needs permanent leadership at this crucial time in our nation's war on terrorism," McClain said in a prepared statement. "We are grateful that his decision will allow him to remain in Los Angeles as assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence to help keep LAX secure."

mdsilva@latimes.com

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