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Posted at 6:15 PM ET, 03/27/2010

Career spy Robert Harding's covert op on Obama

By Jeff Stein

Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, prepare for your Weekend Update Moment!

And Jon Stewart. And Colbert, Letterman, Leno and all the rest. You’ve been done in by the gang that can’t vet straight.

Nobody laughed about your undisclosed Homeland Security and Pentagon contracts, your Iraq interrogation work or bloated severance payments to employees.

But getting a disabled-vet set-aside contract for sleep apnea? That put you on the TSA Nominee No-Fly list.

It's hard to imagine that Harding, who spent three decades running top secret military intelligence operations before President Obama picked him to run the troubled Transportation Security Administration, told the White House about all this. It looks more like an episode of "I've Got a Secret."

His was the second TSA nomination to get stopped at the gate. In January, former FBI agent Erroll Southers had trouble explaining his conducting background checks on his estranged wife’s boyfriend, and withdrew.

Harding seemed to have slalomed through all his own red flags as late as Thursday, following a week on Capitol Hill. But the discovery of his 2008 set-aside contract with the Army for a disability -- which turned out to be sleep apnea -- by The Post’s Robert O’Harrow, proved fatal.

The retired major general, who would have been the first African American to helm the TSA, withdrew his nomination late Friday night, saying he didn’t want to cause “distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor,” according to The Post's Spencer S. Hsu and Ed O'Keefe.

Too late.

Washington’s chattering classes will spend days chewing on the administration’s latest TSA vetting miscue, surely noting that it follows on the national-security near-disaster of the Nigerian underwear bomber, not to mention reversals of fortune over closing Guantanamo and the planned Manhattan trial of self-avowed Sept. 11 hijacker Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

What a way to spoil the president’s victory party on health care.

How, the critics will ask, did the White House fail to see trouble brewing with Harding, in light of:

* His company’s $7.4 million Iraq interrogations contract with the Defense Intelligence Agency, where the nominee served as director of operations from 1996 to 2000.

Pentagon and congressional investigations found no ties between the interrogation abuses at Abu Ghraib and the work Harding Security Associates did for the Iraq Survey Group at Camp Slayer at Baghdad International Airport, but it was awfully close for comfort.

* The Pentagon audit that found HSA had over-billed the government for “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to one report, forcing it to pay back almost $2 million.

"A subsequent review by the Pentagon's inspector general and others found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing," The Post reported Saturday afternoon.

“The audit, which a Pentagon spokesman said … was completed by the Defense Contract Audit Agency in September 2006, has not been publicly released,” Congress Daily’s Chris Strohm reported March 19. “The agency declined to discuss it, referring all questions to the Defense Department.”

When Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who co-chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee began asking about it 10 days ago, the nomination looked shaky but still winnable, close observers said.

But when The Post’s O’Harrow started asking the White House about $99.7 million contract the Army awarded Harding’s company in 2008 as a “Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Set-Aside,” he was done.

The disability? Sleep apnea, according to the contract O'Harrow dug up.

"It was not clear what effect the questions about his disabilities had on Harding's decision to withdraw," O'Harrow reported Saturday afternoon. "The White House declined to comment about the $100 million contract, awarded in July 2008, or about Harding's disability, including its cause, diagnosis or impact on his work."

Harding could not be reached at his home for comment.

In his confirmation hearing last week, Harding said his priority as TSA chief would be to “share intelligence” with everybody who does business with the agency, “”to help us not just meet the threat, but to stay ahead of the threat.”

In light of his doomed nomination, it looks like like the intelligence-sharing should have started the week before.

By Jeff Stein  | March 27, 2010; 6:15 PM ET
Tags:  Abu Ghraib, Camp Slayer, DIA, Defense Contract Audit Agency, Defense Department, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, Guantanamo, HUMINT, Harding Security Associates, Iraq Survey Group, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Obama, Pentagon, Robert A. Harding, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Susan Collins, TSA, U.S. Army, Weekend Update  
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Such disabilities are not that unusual with military retirees. Recall the air force general who flew an unauthorized bomber mission over Thailand in the 70's. Within a few days, he retired with a 75% disability even though previously he was on flight status. There are many retirees receiving disability and working full time. I see DV plates on vehicles in handicap spaces at the gym and the individuals are using nearly 400 lbs of weight, on the elliptical trainer and then swimming. It would be interesting to see what the cost of these programs are.

Posted by: Chalupa1 | March 28, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Best qualified? What is seems to be is a trend of reparation by fiat. If these appointees have the same penchant for lying as Obama, the sad thing is they will be well entrenched before a Republican sweep can ferret them out.

But is the President really a liar? You would think if this video is real, and if it were Bush, it would be rehashed a thousand times by the major news networks...

Posted by: Everwatchful | March 28, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

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