Christmas Day attack triggers spat over confirmation of TSA chief

Senate confirmation of President Obama's nominee for head of the Transportation Security Administration was delayed by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint over unionization concerns. Experts say confirmation is urgent, but any blame for the attack on the agency is misplaced.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent screens baggage at a security checkpoint at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday.

The Christmas Day terrorist attempt to bring down the Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 is shining a bright light on delays in appointing a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief, the agency tasked with keeping American's transportation infrastructure safe.

At the same time, some experts have noted the agency is not at fault for the recent attack.

After President Obama named Erroll Southers, an ex-FBI agent and top law enforcement officer at the Los Angeles World Airports, in September as his pick to lead the TSA, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina moved to block his appointment over concerns that Mr. Southers would allow airport screeners to unionize.

"The attempted terror attack in Detroit is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA and allow our airline security decisions to be dictated by union bosses," Senator DeMint said in a statement Monday.

DeMint blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada for the delay since he hasn’t scheduled a vote on Southers’ nomination. Senator Reid’s spokesman said Tuesday the senator will call for a vote on the TSA nomination as soon as lawmakers return from break on Jan. 19.

Southers’ nomination has been approved by two Senate committees, but DeMint has objected to a full Senate vote, calling for debate on the union issue. According to the Los Angeles Times, Southers told DeMint in a letter that he would need to speak with TSA employees and airline groups before taking a position on the union issue.

Some analysts and lawmakers have pointed out that Mr. Obama took eight months to name his TSA nominee. The helm of the Customs and Border Protection agency remains vacant, too. According to the Washington Post’s Head Count project, which tracks the administration’s appointments, 125 senior political appointments remain open and 96 nominations await Congressional confirmation.

But while the Christmas Day bomb plot has added urgency to confirm a TSA chief, some experts say criticism of the agency itself for the thwarted attack is misdirected.

“The TSA wasn’t actually involved,” says security expert Bruce Schneier, in regards to screening terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. “Now, the State Department gave him a visa.”

Mr. Abdulmutallab was issued a visa to travel to the US in 2008. In November, after Abdulmutallab's father reportedly told State Department officials in Nigeria about his son's suspected radicalization, Abdulmutallab was added to 500,000 other names on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, which is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center. But his inclusion on the list is not enough to keep him from flying to the US on a visa.

Federal counterterrorism officials maintain another smaller list – reportedly with about 3,400 names on it – that is referred to as the "no fly" list.

While Obama said that airport security procedures need to be reviewed in light of this most recent terrorism case, at a Monday news conference he also called for a review of the US's terrorist watch list. "We need to determine just how the suspect was able to bring dangerous explosives aboard an aircraft and what additional steps we can take to thwart future attacks," he said.

Some critics have called for the State Department to relinquish visa issuing duties altogether.

“The mishandling of the would-be airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s visa is only the latest piece of evidence that the granting of visas should be taken away from the State Department,” wrote Elliott Abrams, a security adviser in the Bush administration, Tuesday in National Review Online. “For the granting of visas — especially today, when terrorism is such a complex threat – is far closer to being a law-enforcement function.”


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