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Experts: Southers exit signals several mistakes

By Ed O'Keefe

Despite substantive concerns about his nomination, Erroll Southers's decision to withdraw from consideration to lead the Transportation Security Administration raises questions about the Obama administration's vetting process and the potential politicization of the presidential transition process, according to Homeland Security and presidential transition experts.

"Anytime that the national security debate is politicized, I think we do the nation a disservice," said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think this has been the case with Erroll Southers."

If Obama wants to correct the "systemic failures" that led to the thwarted Christmas Eve bomb attack on an American airliner, "he can’t make those systemic changes if he doesn’t’ have his leadership in place," Nelson said. "I think it’s important for the president to get his team in place as fast as he can to make the changes he deems necessary."

Several Democrats and former colleagues of Southers argued that Republican unnecessarily stalled his nomination. But the fact that he gave Congress and the White House misleading information about incidents two decades ago in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database to obtain information about his estranged wife's new boyfriend also raised substantive concerns.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and expert on the presidency, said this incident proves that the nomination and confirmation process gets longer and deeper with each new administration, as nominees expose new potential pitfalls.

"We never looked for nannies before Zoe Baird," Hess said, recalling Bill Clinton's first pick for attorney general, who failed to pay Social Security taxes for an illegal immigrant she hired to serve as a nanny.

"Everybody’s got a stake in this thing, everybody wants for their own purposes to slow down the process, everybody’s got his own forms to fill out," Hess said. "And we can’t get a government in place. There has to be a point in which people understand that we elect a president for four years, we’ve got to give him a shot at running his government as best he can."

"This is another example of where the presidential vetting process has failed," said Paul Light, a presidential transition expert at New York University. "They should have detected this early and moved on to another candidate."

The Southers incident proves the White House is having difficulty "distinguishing between little things that don’t merit attention and bigger things that can derail a nomination," Light said.

"This particular case brought a lot of advocates for presidential transitions to the ramparts of how burdensome and destructive the presidential appointments process has become," Light said. "It would have been nice to know that we were defending a nominee with a flawed background."

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 20, 2010; 12:04 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Revolving Door  
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Comments

STEPHEN HESS'S COMMENTS HERE ARE ABSOLUTELY WORTHLESS-TO COMPARE SOUTHER'S CRIMINAL ACTS -AND LET US BE CLEAR, THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT IT IS-TO RIFLE THROUGH FEDERALLY PROTECTED RECORDS UNDER THE PRIVACY ACT CALLS FOR CRIMINAL PENALTIES-THE EQUIVALENT OF A "ZOE BAIRD, NANNY ISSUE" IS UTTERLY PREPOSTEROUS AND WAY WAY OFF POINT.

THE MAN SOUTHERS THEN COMPOUNDS HIS SUITABILITY PROBLEM WHEN HE LIES TO A CONGRESS-PERJURES HIMSELF IN AN AFFIDAVIT-THAT TOO, IS A CRIMINAL ACT-AND HE ONLY SORT OF OWNED UP TO IT AFTER HE KNEW THE HS COMMITTEE WERE GOING TO RIGHTFULLY GET HIS DISCHARGE RECORDS FROM THE FBI. HE STILL DIDN'T COMPLETELY OWN UP TO WHAT HE DID-WE STILL ONLY KNOW HIS GRUDGINGLY GIVEN ADMISSION THAT IT WAS HE, AND NOT A FRIEND, WHO WENT THROUGH THE RECORDS, AND HE DID IT MORE THAN ONCE, AND HE DOWNLOADED THEM AND SENT THEM TO OTHERS. THIS WAS FAR FAR WORSE THAN THE STATE DEPT. EMPLOYEES CRIMINAL VIOLATION.

LICHT IS IN FACT RIGHT ON POINT. SOUTHERS NOMINATION SHOULD NEVER HAVE COME FORWARD IN THE FIRST INSTANCE-THE AMORAL WH VETTING CREW, AND THE APPARENT "LIE ABOUT ANYTHING SHAPIRO" ARE CLEARLY FAILING THE PRESIDENT-HEADS SHOULD ROLL OVER THIS CATASTROPHE OF A NOMINATION-WHITE HOUSE HEADS SHOULD ABSOLUTELY ROLL-I AM OFFENDED BEYOND BELIEF THAT THEY COULD MOVE FORWARD ON A CANDIDATE WHO COULD NOT EVEN PASS A SUITABILITY DETERMINATION FOR FEDERAL EMPLOYMENT, MUCH LESS HOLD A SECURITY CLEARANCE-ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGEOUSLY OFFENDED BY THIS NOMINATION.

Posted by: Spring_Rain | January 20, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Another, really - really bad day for the DEMOCRUDS.

Posted by: stephenwhelton | January 20, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

I was not aware that so many officials in Washington already knew about the breaking of the law in Southers background.
What an insult to the public, you people are aware of this and still you try to push the guy on us!
You gag me government officials.
Did any of you people take a class called 'ETHICS' in college?

Posted by: JimW2 | January 20, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

We are so quick to condemn, and to attack.

I think this is a sad day for our country. I have known Erroll Southers for more than 15 years. He is a man of character and intelligence who knows security issues as well or better than almost anyone the President could have chosen. He is also an excellent leader of people, which is also needed as head of TSA. He has an unblemished record for more than 20 years. Does that count for nothing?

At the time he did the search, and it was one search on one person because he feared his young son was being exposed to a criminal. No excuses, but surely this error, serious as it was, should not override so many years of outstanding service.

The Republicans have made clear they want to destroy our President, and one way to do this is to prevent his appointees from being confirmed. In this case politics has clearly trumped national security. Both parties used to care more about our country than the next election. Sadly this is no longer true. The Democrats are far from perfect, but at least they are trying to deal with the problems our country faces. The Republicans believe obstruction of everything serves their interests best no matter the effects on our country.

It is clear to me that Hess is right; the vetting, confirmation process has become so all-embracing that many good people will not even allow their names to be put forward. After living more than 50 years, who has not made a single mistake? Who has a perfect memory of every incident in their past? Who doesn’t have a relative whose actions might cause embarrassment? Perhaps one sin is enough to block a nominee, but then who among us is perfect enough to serve our country?

Allowing an individual Senator to block any nominee, no matter how qualified, for specious reasons or no reason or to trash that person’s reputation based on incidents from many years back is to make it impossible to govern, and therefore is a threat to our country and its future.

More than 20 years ago Mr. Southers made a serious mistake, which he has acknowledged, and after answering hundreds of questions about his past, he made another mistake because his memory was not perfect. When the documentation from the time of the incident showed his mistake, he immediately informed Congress. We now force someone out because of a failure to remember all the specifics of an event 20 years ago? We have lost a fine potential leader of TSA at a time when such a leader is vitally needed.

Perhaps it is time to change the appointment and confirmation processes, so good people are willing and able to work in government.

Posted by: drcat | January 20, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

It's not about lies. If Southers belonged to a different section of the population, he would have been praised for being a dutiful father who was concerned about the welfare of his children and would have been portrayed as the perfect person for a job of such high regard.

Posted by: brit89 | January 20, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

It's not about lies. If Southers belonged to a different section of the population, he would have been praised for being a dutiful father who was concerned about the welfare of his children and would have been portrayed as the perfect person for a job of such high regard.

Posted by: brit89 | January 20, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

So what they are saying is they want everyone to turn a blind eye to a under qualified candidate because they cant do the proper vetting before they announce things?

Sorry Obama... The blame is still squarely on YOUR shoulders... again...

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | January 20, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

If they vetted properly .. there would be nobody in Congress. The more they all try to get their own way ...the more of the decline in the ability to govern.

Posted by: xnereusx | January 21, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

drcat - hit the nail on the head with his/her comments. Errol Souther's mistake(s) were not minor and should have been dealt with when they occurred. Having said that, it is foolish to suggest that this experienced, veteran FBI agent should not be allowed a confirmation hearing on the basis of a twenty year old incident. The U.S. Senate has a bunch of power mad individuals who, based on the same treatment they gave Southers - would all be forced to resign immediately. They need to stop prostituting the confirmation process and let the President seat his nominees.

Posted by: gordonhamel@cox.net | January 21, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

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