No security for TSA nominee

"I wish someone would have defended me more aggressively," Erroll Southers tells Salon after withdrawing his name

By Alex Koppelman
Published January 22, 2010 1:15AM (EST)

Over the past year, many of President Obama's nominees to various administration posts have found themselves stuck playing a waiting game, their confirmation process stalled in the Senate. As of last month, there were more than 200 nominations still pending, and according to the New York Times, roughly 75 of them had gotten through the relevant committee but were still being held up anyway.

One of those nominees -- Erroll Southers, the president's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration -- had enough of the waiting. On Wednesday, he announced that he was withdrawing his name four months after being nominated.

The news was somewhat surprising. True, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had been determined to block Southers' confirmation over the question of whether he'd allow a collective bargaining process for security screeners, and Southers had other issues after giving an accurate account of an incident that led to his censure by the FBI in the 1980's. But after the attempted terrorist bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas, DeMint's hold looked politically radioactive and Southers' confirmation seemed assured -- no one wants to be seen as putting Americans in danger for political reasons.

But even after DeMint started getting unfavorable attention for the hold, the White House never put together much of a public push on Southers' behalf. Now he's out. And though, in an interview with Salon on Thursday, he said he's OK with that, he admitted he's not totally happy with the way the White House handled the political side of his nomination.

"I wish someone would have defended me more aggressively," Southers said. "I think that my nomination and the confirmation process went too long. The longer I was out there each week, the more people took shots at me .... I felt like I was on my heels throughout this process. And I would have preferred to be able to lean forward, and that never happened."

Southers told Salon, as he had said in his statement in which he announced his withdrawal, that his decision was his own. Asked whether the White House had suggested the move, however, Southers said, "Not verbally, but the inaction on their part in terms of defending me might -- maybe, perhaps I should’ve been a little more perceptive." And, according to Southers, the White House had barely blinked an eye after hearing that he would be dropping out. "I did get a very positive statement from Nick Shapiro, who is the White House spokesperson, but that’s the only reaction I ever got," he said.

Asked for a response to Southers' comments, Shapiro provided Salon with the same statement Southers had referenced, which does not address the issue of how the White House approached the confirmation process.

"The President believes that Erroll Southers would have been an excellent TSA Administrator but understands his personal decision and the choice he has made. Erroll Southers has had a distinguished 30-year interdisciplinary career addressing public safety and homeland security issues," Shapiro says in it. "Southers was uniquely qualified for this job and it is with great sadness that the President accepted Southers' withdrawal. Fortunately the acting TSA Administrator is very able and we have a solid team of professionals at TSA doing vital national security work to keep us safe."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Erroll Southers Transportation Security Administration War Room