In a town that has seen just about everything, especially after all the drama of the health care debate, you couldn’t help but shake your head in laughter late Friday night when word came that TSA Administrator Nominee MG Robert Harding withdrew his name from consideration.
After going through two confirmation hearings last week and emerging relatively unscathed, it appeared Harding was on his way to confirmation. But along came some strategic and completely fair questions by the Washington Post and, “BOOM!” Harding’s quest went up in smoke.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) had not yet even had a chance to start his anti-union salvos on Fox News and put in his promised procedural holds preventing the nomination from going forward.
The reason behind Harding’s collapse are a bit knotted, but it basically comes down to the fact that his defense contracting business had some “issues” and the means by which he got one of his largest contracts is a bit… well, let’s just say eye-popping. Based on several news reports, Harding Security Associates, the former nominee’s company, was awarded a multi-million dollar contract (nearly $100 million) through a set aside for service disabled veteran businesses. Harding’s disability was sleep apnea.
Now, when I heard this I had to laugh. For those who don’t know what sleep apnea is, it is a breathing disorder that occurs during sleep where your body is not able to get enough oxygen. At various times during sleep, you literally stop breathing for brief periods and often have to gasp for air by means of snoring, or even waking up. It is a serious medical condition, and I should know. I’ve had it for several years.
For the past four years I’ve had to sleep with a breathing mask and machine, and I unfortunately have to haul the damned thing whenever I’m on business or family travels. But it has never been what I would call disabling. If anything, I find myself shaking my head in complete disbelief that of all the truly serious injuries that halt the military careers of our service members, this breathing disorder would be excuse enough to get a multi-million dollar contract.
What makes me shake my head even more is how someone in the White House personnel shop didn’t ask the same questions the Washington Post did and realize that the answers Harding offered did not pass the snicker test. For as accomplished and distinguished as Maj. Gen. Harding’s career has been, to have it come undone and become the butt of any number of forthcoming jokes about snoring and contract awards is beyond unbelievable.
Someone in the White House was either so desperate to fill this critical position that he or she just put Harding out there without taking a good hard look at things or they are just plain incompetent at doing their job. It’s not like immediate questions weren’t raised by some DHS-watchers when Harding was named. The very fact that he was a former defense and national security contractor raised immediate concerns about whether there weren’t potential conflicts of interest. This didn’t cross the mind of anybody at the White House? Lauren Rozen’s column in Politico, “Who Vetted Harding?” was the best I had read in taking a look at this debacle (which is probably the only family-friendly term I can use to describe this situation).
For as much as someone deserves to be fired over this situation (or at least given an “F-bomb laden” career counseling session by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel), Harding should have also taken a step back to look at the existing political environment and realize what he was getting into.
Good people like Phillip Mudd, who was nominated by the Obama Administration to be DHS’ Chief Intelligence Officer and has had a distinguished career serving America’s intelligence interests, recognized early on the “gotcha environment” that he would have to go through to take the Senate-confirmed position. By being honest with himself and the Administration, he took himself out of the running to save himself and the Administration the pain of a failed nomination. Whether it was ego or ambition that took over, Harding should have done the same. Regardless of what you’ve done for your country before, it matters very little when Senators or the media train their sights on you and are looking to take someone out — which is, of course, what Senators and the media do in Washington.
I have no doubt that Mudd would have been a good Chief Intelligence Officer for DHS, and I’m fairly sure Harding, like his predecessor nominee, Erroll Southers, would have done a good job at TSA, too, but the toxicity of today’s political environment demands no baggage or “snicker” factors to get through the media and Senate gauntlet.
That’s a sad state of affairs when you consider the exemplary qualifications that Mudd, Southers and Harding brought to the table, but it is the reality of today’s confirmation environment and the White House had better wake up to those facts.
I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that a morale visit by the President to the people of TSA is in order. For all of the perfunctory and typical obligatory words the White House has offered in support of career TSA leadership and employees following the collapse of the Southers and Harding nominations, nothing speaks louder than a visit by the President to personally say, “Thank you!”
The President did that with great style over the weekend for our troops in Afghanistan, for which he deserves commendation, but it’s just a short drive from the White House to TSA Headquarters in Arlington. No clandestine flights are involved with the commute either. It would be great for him to thank this team for doing its part to protect the American public from harm. TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides and the rest of the agency deserve to know the President believes in them too.