Robert A. Harding, former Army intelligence, tapped to lead TSA

President Obama has nominated Robert A. Harding, a retired two-star general with an Army intelligence background to lead the TSA, which is responsible for US airport security.

Mary Schwalm/AP
A Transportation Security Administration employee demonstrates the use of a body scanning device at Boston's Logan International Airport on Friday. President Obama has nominated Robert A. Harding to head the TSA, which oversees security at US airports.

President Obama has nominated Robert A. Harding, a former Army officer with a background in intelligence to lead airport security for the US.

Mr. Harding, a retired two-star general, would head of the Transportation Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security that oversees security for all transportation modes, but would be in a position to implement security policy where most Americans feel it the most: in airports.

Harding's nomination comes three months after the attempted bombing of an American airliner in Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder to Americans that terrorist plots on their homeland continue to be threat.

Still, most Americans believe intelligence gathering, not elaborate airport security, is the key to nabbing terrorists. According to a January Ipsos/McClatchy poll, 63 percent of Americans “agree strongly” that better collection and coordination of intelligence does more to reduce terrorism, whereas about 48 percent believe that body scans or “full body searches” at airports are effective.

Experts agree that effective counter-terrorism measures are proactive.

“You want to find a terrorist, find him before he gets to the airport,” says homeland security expert James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

Mr. Carafano, who has participated on a task force for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), notes that the TSA’s role is not to hunt down terrorists, but to identify individuals who pose a risk. Despite Harding’s intelligence background, Carafano believes Harding’s biggest asset is his background as a military officer, which may make it harder for Congress to resist confirming him as they did Obama’s first nominee, Erroll Southers, who removed his name from the confirmation process.

Carafano cites low accident records and employee morale surveys in pointing out that TSA employees are far more satisfied with their jobs than they were even a few years ago. The security failures that led to December's attempted bombing were not TSA-level oversights, he says. On the contrary, the TSA has grown to be a much stronger agency.

“TSA is far from broken,” he says. “If you look at the record of this agency, they’ve come a long way, baby.”

In announcing the nomination, US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said Harding’s role will be to continue to narrow the security gaps in the aviation system, deploying additional airport police officers, “behavior detection officers,” dogs, and other security measures.

DHS on Friday announced that the TSA would begin installing more sophisticated scanning equipment in 11 airports nationwide, beginning with Boston
Logan. The new “advanced imaging technology” scanners look for both metallic and non-metallic threats such as weapons and explosives that could be hidden
under clothing. The technology is controversial in some quarters because it essentially snaps an image of an individual as they appear without clothing.

But the TSA has pledged to maintain the traveling public's privacy by keeping the images anonymous and by locating the TSA worker inspecting the photos away from the actual security line. The images are not to be stored or collected, the TSA says. The agency expects to deploy 450 of these units by the end of the year, and another 500 by the end of fiscal 2011. There are now 40 in use.

“Make no mistake, we are engaged in an aggressive effort to strengthen the international aviation system against terrorists, who are constantly seeking
ways to exploit gaps and thwart security measures,” Napolitano said.

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