Obama nominee to head transportation security withdraws


Washington : US President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) withdrew Wednesday, keeping the agency that manages airport security without a permanent head in the wake of the Christmas Day plot to blow up an airliner.

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The departure came as Congress held a series of hearings related to the failed Dec 25 attack on a Detroit-bound flight, including intelligence failures in the run-up to the plot and efforts to combat terrorist groups in Yemen.

Erroll Southers, who managed counterterrorism efforts at Los Angeles’ four airports, was waiting to be approved as TSA head by the Senate. In a sharply worded statement released by the White House, he accused Republicans of putting the country’s safety at risk by using “political ideology” to delay his nomination.

“It is clear that my nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people,” Southers said. “This partisan climate is unacceptable and I refuse to allow myself to remain part of their dialogue.”

TSA’s lack of a permanent head since Obama entered office last January came into sharp focus after the Christmas plot. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is charged with smuggling explosives onto the Northwest Airlines plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. The explosive failed to detonate after he set it afire.

Southers was accused of giving conflicting information to the Senate over inappropriate background checks that he conducted on an ex-wife’s boyfriend in the late 1980s, when he served as an FBI agent.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint had also slowed the nomination process in the chamber by arguing that Southers intended to unionize the TSA workforce.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Obama accepted Southers’ departure with “great sadness”. It was not clear when a new person would be nominated, but Shapiro said Obama had “full confidence” in the TSA’s acting head, Gale Rossides.

Southers’ departure comes as US intelligence officials accepted responsibility for failures to uncover the Dec 25 plot. The intelligence community was heavily criticised for not heeding warning signs that an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was planning an attack, as well as indications that Abdulmutallab may have been radicalised.

Abdulmutallab “should not have stepped onto a plane on Christmas Day,” said Michael Leiter, director of the country’s National Counterterrorism Centre, in testimony before the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee.

“We must and will do better,” Leiter said.