Right off the bat, let me give full disclosure: I am working with Erroll Southers in his media and communications responses related to his decision to withdraw his nomination as TSA Administrator. However, the opinions I express in this blog post are entirely my own; Erroll Southers has not even seen this post at the time of publication.
That said, I was glad for the opportunity to work with Erroll because I think he’s gotten a bum deal, and I think it’s a disaster for the country to have the TSA continue on – for more than a year now – without Senate-confirmed permanent leadership at a time when the agency needs such leadership more urgently than ever.
Yes, there is a professional and dedicated crew at TSA working hard to execute the agency’s day-to-day functions. In my government experience, however, it is impossible for such an agency to take bold action and consider significant reforms without a long-term political appointee in place. Nobody wants to be the one to get out on a limb, only to discover that you are at odds with the new boss. Better to manage things as best you can and not rock the boat.
But there is probably some boat-rocking that needs to be done. This isn’t a dig at TSA. It’s simply a realization that, after the systemic failures we witnessed during the Christmas terror incident, multiple government agencies need to engage in top-to-bottom reviews and consider potential reforms, including TSA.
In the midst of this urgency, is now the time to play politics with the nominee when so much is on the table?
And, seriously, this is about politics. Now, it’s legitimate politics. Well, legitimate policy anyway. It’s unfortunate politics, but I happen to agree with those who argue that we should not unionize a federal homeland security agency that is on the front lines in the fight against terror. We need to be highly flexible and adaptive and not get bogged down in negotiating everything from uniforms to the placement of coffee stands when our national security is at stake.
But why go after Erroll Southers? Southers isn’t the guy who will make that decision, and Senator DeMint knows it.
The fight over unions is one between Congress and the White House, and it is the White House that will set policy on something as high profile as unionization, not Southers. He may offer his opinion, but, in the end, the only opinion that matters is the one coming from the White House.
Southers became a political scapegoat for DeMint to send a message to the White House. It’s unfortunate. Southers has more than thirty years of experience in the law enforcement and homeland security environment. Unfortunately – and ironically – he may be too apolitical to know how to expertly maneuver through Washington’s often perilous political landscape. He’s a law enforcement professional, not a politician. Nor is he the first to become collateral damage in the bloodsports of Washington.
As for the hullabaloo over an incident in which Southers improperly used his position as an FBI agent for personal reasons – and, yes, it was improper – that is political spin and eye-candy, cover for the real agenda regarding unions.
Reports that Southers “mislead” Congress is an overstatement. Southers was fully transparent about this incident in his written statement submitted during his first congressional hearing (before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee). Senator DeMint voted against Southers even at that early point, before anybody had raised any questions about the FBI incident. Even after Senator Collins quizzed him on it during the Homeland hearing, the Committee voted on a bipartisan and unanimous basis to approve Southers.
Should Southers have gotten a copy of the FBI citation letter and provided it to the Committee? Yes. And even more important, should he have gotten a copy for himself and refreshed his memory before speaking off the cuff? Absolutely. Again, being unschooled in the politics of Washington, maybe he didn’t think it was that important, considering it was something that happened twenty years ago and was a minor disciplinary action – the FBI’s equivalent of a slap on the wrist. He was wrong. That was a mistake; however, Southers immediately called Senator Collins with the information once he obtained a copy of the letter. But sensing blood, DeMint went in for the kill.
This isn’t about anything other than the contentious policy issue of unions and their role in government agencies dealing with national security.
It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Congress has every right to debate this.
Making Erroll Southers the fall guy, though, is cheap politics.