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Exclusive: Former TSA nominee speaks out

I just spoke with Erroll Southers, who withdrew his name on Tuesday from the nomination process to become the head of the Transportation Security Administration, created after the 9/11 to ensure the United States' aviation security.

In September, Sen. Jim DeMint put Southers on hold, over concerns about his approval of allowing TSA employees to bargain collectively. Southers is a counterterrorism guy, not a politician. He didn't expect, nor did he enjoy, the constant personal attacks and partisan bickering about an issue somewhat orthogonal to airport security, particularly in light of the Christmas Day bombing attempt.

Here's an excerpt: 

Who did you speak with before making the decision? It came on a rough day for Democrats on the Hill.

I spoke with my family, my friends. I spoke with the White House counsel.

And to be honest, there wasn't a good time. I had been told since my last hearing that I was going to be confirmed. It didn't seem to be moving forward. The partisan attacks on me and my family were vicious. Every week it seemed like I was getting knocked back on my heels, with no protection. I could have have waited until today, or tomorrow, or next week. But who knows what kind of new attacks or statements were out there to glom onto. It wasn't decreasing. The crescendo was increasing.

Here I was -- the most apolitical guy you could ever meet. I serve a Republican governor. I was nominated by a Democratic president. And I became a political football, in a game that had nothing to do with increasing our security posture. It needed to stop.

Given the 176 remaining unconfirmed appointees and the Southers fracas, I wonder whether Sen. Harry Reid and the administration are reviewing their thoughts on recess appointments.

Read the rest of the interview after the break:

So why did you withdraw your name?

I had a protracted nomination and confirmation process, due to a hold over collective bargaining. That really is the issue.

There were other issues added to the mix -- meaning the FBI letter of censure, and videos of lectures by me that were distorted and that led to personal attacks. Those partisan and personal attacks were increasing in volume, after the Christmas Day bombing attempt. But I thought, we thought it might move forward. But the attacks increased in volume and, quite frankly, even upon confirmation I would have been attacked on collective bargaining. It would have taken the focus away from moving the agency forward, I thought. 

How high was collective bargaining on your agenda anyway?

It was high on my agenda because it was a priority, articulated by then-Sen. Barack Obama in October of 2008. He wrote a letter to John Gage about the Transportation Security Administration in support of collective bargaining.

However, recent events -- the Christmas Day bombing attempt -- and the intelligence streams would have put this in the proper place of my list of things to do. Behind security. Behind making sure we had the appropriate intelligence. Behind making sure intelligence got to the right people.

As I said to Senator DeMint, this was about the mission. I was about the mission. I was there to take care of the security of this country.

Did anyone in the White House ever discuss a recess appointment with you?

No. That was never discussed with me.

Did you bring it up with anyone in Washington?

I might have brought it up in passing. But not with anyone who could have made that decision. But I understood that it was not an option.

How did you know it wasn't?

It was just discussions I had. Everyone around me said, "Is anyone going to do a recess appointment?" And I said, that's never been an option. I don't think it's going to happen.

Secretary [of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano was very aggressive pushing for one up until the last hour, up until [Congress recessed] at Christmastime. But it was clear then, it was clear that it wouldn't happen until they got back.

I don't know. I can't even speculate. I would have thought the underwear bomber attempt would have certainly justified that kind of move -- not that one person is going to be the savior for an agency for 60,000 people. But I think the American public would have understood.

What have you been doing for the past four months?

I was working my old job [in the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department]. I came back to Washington for the hearings, exhausted all my vacation time to do so. I was basically working two jobs: one was called the confirmation process and the other was at Los Angeles airports.

Who was fighting for you on the Hill?

Everyone on the Democratic side seemed to be in my corner. Senator Isaacson was supportive, Senator LeMieux. I had bipartisan support -- Senator Collins was supportive from the time I got voted out of committee, and I believe she is to this day.

I'm an apolitical person. I'm a counterterrorism expert, not a politician. This was about terrorism to me. I don't think collective bargaining should have been part of the dialogue, not with a 60,000 agency without a confirmed leader and the threats we were facing.

To be honest, collective bargaining was the only thing that held me -- not the only thing I was talking about. I was talking about three things. The people of the TSA and what it was going to take to get them trained, get them to understand procedures, to develop their careers, to retain them. The second was public confidence. I've been in countries where it is very high, places like London, places like Israel. They engender public confidence because they educate the public and make them more aware. Then there were a number of programs to facilitate, and partnerships -- information sharing, best-practices sharing, doing what we've done in LA, using the centers of excellence and engaging academia.

Collective bargaining was something I knew would have to be addressed. But it was not something that was dominating the dialogue, by any means. 

What is the impact of having the TSA leaderless for so long?

I hesitate to use the term leaderless. I think [acting TSA head Gale Rossides] has done a good job. But you have a person who wasn't confirmed there, so you can't make those policy decisions that a confirmed head can. You can't have the appropriate person at the international level, speaking with foreign governments to harmonize security procedures. That's what happens when you don't have a confirmed assistant secretary. It winds up on a to-do list, or goes up the chain of command and takes a while to come down, because you don't have the right person there. You have to put things put on hold.

Who did you speak with before making the decision? It came on a rough day for Democrats on the Hill.

I spoke with my family, my friends. I spoke with the White House counsel.

And to be honest, there wasn't a good time. I had been told since my last hearing that I was going to be confirmed. It didn't seem to be moving forward. The partisan attacks on me and my family were vicious. Every week it seemed like I was getting knocked back on my heels, with no protection. I could have have waited until today, or tomorrow, or next week. But who knows what kind of new attacks or statements were out there to glom onto. It wasn't decreasing. The crescendo was increasing.

Here I was -- the most apolitical guy you could ever meet. I serve a republican governor. I was nominated by a Democratic president. And I became a political football, a game that had nothing to do with increasing our security posture. It needed to stop.

So did you discuss it with the White House before deciding to pull your name out from consideration?

I had a discussion with them, that same day. I wrote the letter to the president after consulting with family and friends.

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