Saturday, January 2, 2010

Obama TSA nominee misled Congress about breaking the law

In my recent post about TSA administrator nominee Erroll Southers, I discussed the national security pitfalls of collective bargaining at the agency.  Southers' silence on his intentions regarding the collective bargaining issue is only one troubling aspect of his nomination.

During the confirmation process, Southers submitted a written sworn affadavit that described an incident in which he asked a friend in law enforcement to break the law, resulting in a censure by his, then employer, the FBI:
Southers first described the episode in his October affidavit, telling the Senate panel that two decades ago he asked a San Diego Police Department employee to access confidential criminal records about the boyfriend. Southers said he had been censured by superiors at the FBI. He described the incident as isolated and expressed regrets about it.
At the hearing on November 10, Senator Susan Collins questioned Southers about the admission:
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) questioned President Obama's nominee to lead the nation's airport security agency Tuesday about a censure he received from the FBI in 1988.

Erroll Southers, who was serving as an FBI special agent at the time of the censure, asked a co-worker's husband who worked for the San Diego Police Department to run a background check on his ex-wife's boyfriend.

Under questioning by Collins, Southers said that he has not misused government databases to receive personal information on anyone since the incident and that he would not do so in the future.

Collins did not describe the incident during Tuesday's hearing, instead referring only to an "issue" that led to the censure.

Southers gave a detailed account in his written responses that were released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The boyfriend had moved in with my ex-wife, from whom I had separated only a short time before, and I was concerned for the safety of her and my infant son, who was also living with them," he wrote. "The database search revealed an outstanding warrant for his arrest, about which I informed my ex-wife."

"I recognize that it was a mistake to have used my official connections to investigate the matter," Southers said.
His nomination was subsequently appoved by the Senate homeland security committee on November 19.  The very next day he sent a letter to Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins admitting that his first account was incorrect:
After reviewing documents, he wrote, he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife's boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee, the letter said.
Today the Washington Post reports that key (unnamed) senators knew of the inaccuracies in Southers confirmation testimony before the November 19th vote and voted for him anyway.  I doesn't take a rocket scientist to infer that Mr. Southers was probably tipped off that he should amend his statements.

There are only two plausible ways to look at this misleading testimony:

1.  As a federal agent, Southers could not remember breaking federal law twice, 20 years ago, because such breaches of federal privacy laws were not uncommon, so therefore not memorable; or
2.  Southers lied in hopes of making his transgressions seem more human, more forgivable, notwithstanding the fact that he was criminally implicating some unnamed San Diego police officer.

In my view, neither explanation bodes well for his confirmation as head of the TSA.

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