The Southers Confirmation Debacle

This is just up at CQ. Worth the read. Nothing says politicization of homeland security like Erroll Southers’ treatment by the U.S. Senate.

Southers Says Politics Spurred His Departure

By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Erroll Southers set off a firestorm in the homeland security world Wednesday when the White House announced his intention to withdraw as President Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration.

But while Washington was atwitter over Southers’ decision, the former nominee said he was feeling a sense of relief. In fact, his friends and family were throwing him an “almost confirmation party.”

“At this point, I’m just going to exhale and try to repair the remnants of my reputation that are left,” Southers told CQ Homeland Security on Wednesday evening, adding he plans to stay on as assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence at Los Angeles World Airports’ police department and continue his work in the academic field.

Southers was nominated in September, but his nomination became mired in controversy two months later when his confirmation hearings began. Some Republicans worried he might grant collective-bargaining rights to TSA employees, something they have lacked since TSA was created in 2002. The Bush administration argued that such rights would hinder the agency’s ability to respond to crises.

Later, other critics focused on an incident in the late 1980s, in which Southers accessed information in the FBI criminal database on his estranged wife’s boyfriend. In affidavits Southers submitted prior to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in October, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November, he said he had asked a San Diego police officer to access the FBI criminal database for information about his estranged wife’s boyfriend. However, in a letter he submitted to Senate Homeland Security after both committees approved him, Southers acknowledged that he twice conducted searches himself.

Southers says he was caught in a smear campaign aimed at racking up points in the aftermath of the attempted Dec. 25 bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

“This is about the mission,” Southers said. “I don’t care what party people are in, and I honestly don’t think al Qaeda has a map with red and blue states on it.”

The former nominee also talked about his feelings about a Democratic proposal to grant TSA employees collective-bargaining rights, provided a timeline for the FBI database incident and discussed why he dropped out of the confirmation process when Senate Democratic leadership seemed so close to pushing him through.

Q: When you announced your withdrawal from consideration, you said you had become a political “lightning rod.” Did you mean you were tired of what was happening to the political process or that you were afraid that its politicization was affecting Transportation Security Administration itself?

A: It’s actually both. First of all, TSA needs leadership. They can’t go without leadership. I’m an apolitical guy. I served a Republican governor, a Democratic president nominated me, and quite frankly if President McCain was in the White House, I would hope that he would see my qualifications the same way. I’m a counterterrorism professional. This is about terrorism to me. It was time to move on. And I didn’t know how long this was going to go on, but it had been going on for some time.

With the partisan attacks I had over collective bargaining, I’m not sure if that would have stopped had I been confirmed. So then it wouldn’t just affect me, it would have affected 61,000 people and the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security and probably the most important apparatus we have to protect our nation’s transportation system. And that was unacceptable to me. I was not going to be part of the narrative for a disaster because we got distracted by something that has nothing to do with security.

Q: Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., put a hold on your nomination, saying he was concerned you would give TSA’s security officers collective-bargaining rights. I know that’s something you didn’t take a firm stand on during your confirmation hearing. Did you have a strong feeling about that issue one way or the other? Were you waiting for the administration to make a decision on it? Did you feel the critique was fair?

A. First, it was an unfair critique. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sen. DeMint: I come from an interdisciplinary world, and to me, the collective-bargaining issue is one which really needed to be assessed scientifically. It needed to have someone get into the organization, get through confirmation, do a top-to-bottom assessment of the organization and where it is, look at how it would affect the operational capability of the organization, do a cost-benefit analysis, and most importantly, talk to some of the 50,000 people it was going to affect. And then, at the end of the day, we could decide what might be the best way to go and make a recommendation to the secretary.

I was not predisposed one way or the other. I told the senator that. It was unacceptable to him. So a “yes” answer was going to result in a hold. A comprehensive review answer, which is what I gave, did result in a hold, and a “no” answer wasn’t an option for me, because the president specifically told one of these unions that we would consider an analysis. I don’t see how you win with that.

Q: The second reason a hold was put on your nomination was the incident with the FBI database. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz., as well as the other Republicans who placed holds on you, expressed concerns about what you presented in the affidavit before your confirmation hearing and the letter you submitted afterward. How did that discrepancy occur?

A: Let’s talk timeline. In 1987, this incident occurred where this database was accessed. And I want to be clear: It was wrong. It was a need-to-know database. I did not need to know, although I was driven by the fact that this individual was living in my home with my one-year-old son, which has not been mentioned in any media. I’m not justifying it, but I want to present the reasoning behind it.

I wrote in two questionnaires to two separate committees what I recalled from memory on this incident, which by the way I’ve never had to disclose since 1987, despite the numerous clearances I’ve obtained from the FBI. I went through the Commerce Committee, and with the exception of Sen. DeMint and [Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.] voting against me on collective bargaining, I was successfully voted out.

On Nov. 10, I was getting ready to testify in front of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and [ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine] wanted more detail on the FBI letter of censure, which, by the way, is a letter of reprimand and the lowest form of discipline you can get in the FBI. I didn’t have the letter, so she asked me questions that required “yes” or “no” answers. The week after the hearing, I was reading a copy of that letter for the first time in 22 years, and when it was read to me, my own statement conflicted with what I wrote and what I testified to.

I didn’t spin it. I didn’t deny it. We called Sen. Collins and [Homeland committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.] and said, “What I just testified to was inconsistent. It’s wrong.” She said, “I want you to write me a letter saying what was read you now in 2009 and what you said happened and you recalled happened in 1987.” I did. She received that letter, she signed off on it.

Q: I’m assuming you don’t think that Senate line of criticism was fair. Do you think the White House properly handled that situation and your confirmation process in general?”

A: I think when a person is being confirmed by the Senate, they need to ask people about everything. And trust me, they did. Was I handled properly? Well, I have never really followed anyone else through a confirmation pre-testimony, so I don’t know how it works, and, again, I’m not a political guy, so I don’t know how that works. I will say this: I tend to lean forward in my personal and professional life, and I don’t like to be rocked back on my heels, and I feel like I was on my heels more often than not.

I do believe I’m qualified. I do believe I was the best choice. I remain honored that I was nominated. And I think the politicization of this process really puts this country at risk.

Q: I was wondering about the timing of your decision. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was going to try to push this nomination through, possibly this week. Did you look at this and say, “I’m so close to the end of the tunnel, why not just stick with it?” If so, why did you decide against that?

A: I’m not a quitter, and other people will tell you that. I’ve been close to the end of the tunnel since November and my family had had enough. I’ve had the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department and a [University of Southern California] center of excellence on hold for seven months. . . . I didn’t want to be doing this in June. It was time for TSA to get leadership. It had been stalled for too long. I was becoming a distraction and I wanted the process to move along. It was more important for this country and this organization than my own personal need to be confirmed, which was something I had no guarantee was going to happen this week, this month or this year.

Q: You’ve said that TSA needs leadership. The tone of your confirmation process undoubtedly will influence the next nominee’s willingness to go through it. Are you concerned that future nominees will be discouraged?

A: You don’t know how many people warned me off this process, and I didn’t listen to them. Two months ago, if you’d googled my name, you would have seen a couple of references to the airport and a lot of conferences that I keynoted. Now if you google my name — I hope my daughter never has to google my name, because it’s disgusting.

I should have listened to my friends and colleagues that tried to warn me off, but I didn’t. I thought I could contribute to this country and this organization, and it’s unfortunate what people who only want to serve their country go through. But there’s no way in the world you can convince me that qualified, talented people aren’t scared off by this process. And that is unfortunate, that is a disservice to this country.

Q: TSA is an agency that’s under a lot of public scrutiny right now. Do you have any regrets that you’re not going to be there to try and help it deal with that?

A: Absolutely. We had some things that I discussed with the secretary that I felt would have at least given people . . . confidence that we were doing things that were intelligent and risk-driven. And I think within a year people would have said, “Hey, this is the right guy.” And more importantly, we would have embarked on a process, as they’ve done so successfully in London and in Israel, of educating our public, making them more aware, building in some public resilience so they become part of our security system and not just customers of the security system.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

4 thoughts on “The Southers Confirmation Debacle”

  1. Link to the original article? I don't know what CQ is. Also, if you want people to read the whole thing, it is polite to post excerpts and tell them to read the rest at the original site. If you re-post the whole thing here, you're cheating the first authors out of views.

  2. Someone who has repeatedly abused government databases for personal gain is definitely not the right person to be leading an agency that already has a history of using its databases to harass and intimidate critics of the agency.

    The TSA needs an organizational cleanup and that requires clean leadership.

  3. I am pretty sure CQ is Congressional Quarterly, and its contents may be public domain, but of that I am not sure.

  4. It sounds like Souther knows what he's doing. But don't you think we can find someone who knows what he or she is doing who didn't abuse their authority to do private investigations for personal reasons? I mean, I understand why he did what he did. I even sympathisize — I might well have done the same thing in his shoes. But you do something like that with your eyes open. It's an abuse of authority, and it isn't to be tolerated.

    Of course, Senator DeMint is an ass.

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