Obama's newest homeland-security problem

Byron York
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Posted: Jan 11, 2010 10:43 PM

For a while, it seemed the nomination and confirmation of Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be a routine affair. Southers' resume included time at the FBI, the California Office of Homeland Security and the Los Angeles airport security force. Qualified nominee, quick confirmation -- right?

Wrong. As the new year begins, the Southers nomination has become the latest Obama confirmation mess, raising questions not only about the nominee but the White House's selection process. And despite Democrats' daunting 60-vote majority, quick confirmation might not be in the cards.

The reason: a growing feeling among Republican senators that Southers misled them. The issue at hand is a 1988 incident in which Southers, then an FBI agent in California, was censured for improperly accessing a criminal database during a domestic dispute.

Southers told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (both panels had to vote on his nomination) about the incident in a sworn affidavit submitted in October. Southers said the FBI censured him because he had, 20 years ago, "asked a co-worker's husband, who worked for the San Diego Police Department, to run a database check on my ex-wife's new boyfriend." Southers explained that he had only been separated from his wife for a brief time and was "concerned for the safety of her and my infant son." The search turned up an outstanding arrest warrant for the man, but Southers admitted, "It was a mistake to have used my official connections to investigate the matter."

On Oct. 27, the commerce committee approved the Southers nomination, with just two senators -- Republicans Jim DeMint and John Ensign -- voting no. (They were unhappy with Southers' refusal to take a position on whether the TSA should be unionized.) On Nov. 19, the homeland-security committee approved Southers unanimously.

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But something was wrong. Just before the homeland-security committee vote, Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the panel, learned that Southers' sworn account of the FBI censure was incorrect. She asked him to give her the straight story.

On Nov. 20 -- the day after the committee voted to approve him -- Southers sent a letter to Collins and committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman admitting the affidavit was wrong. As it turned out, he had not asked a friend to do the database search -- he did it himself. And there was not just one database search -- there were two. And he shared the information with others.

It was a major change in the story -- one that some senators on the homeland-security committee knew nothing about when they supported Southers. Says a spokesman for GOP committee member Sen. Tom Coburn, who voted for Southers: "He did not know about it on Nov. 19, and if he had known, it would have made a difference."

Also, remember that the commerce committee voted to approve Southers more than three weeks earlier, on Oct. 27. At that time, senators knew nothing about the new version of the story; all they had was Southers' original account of the incident.

Now the lawmakers are figuring out what they didn't know. Seven GOP senators -- DeMint, Coburn, John McCain, Charles Grassley, Pat Roberts, Sam Brownback and Mike Johanns -- have written to the White House for more information in light of Southers' "erroneous, and possibly misleading" account. They want to know when Southers first told the White House about the FBI censure, and also when the White House first found out that the story Southers told the committees was wrong. Why wasn't Congress told before, and not after, the committees voted?

The letter ends with a threat. "There are a number of questions," the senators say, "that must be answered so the Senate can effectively render its Constitutional responsibility to advise and consent."

Translated, that means: We will hold this nomination up until you give us the information we want. Indeed, Sens. DeMint, McCain and Coburn have already placed holds on the nomination.

The Southers nomination has become politically supercharged amid concerns over airport security after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet on Christmas Day. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he'll ram the nomination through when lawmakers return to work on Jan. 20. Maybe he will. But not if a growing number of GOP senators has anything to say about it.