On Wednesday Erroll Southers, President Obama’s pick to lead the Transportation Security Administration, withdrew his name from consideration weeks after news reports that he misled Congress regarding an incident during his tenure as an FBI agent 20 years ago. On Thursday, Southers went on FederalNewsRadio to explain why he decided to take his name out of the running:
“The personal attacks and partisan attacks over collective bargaining and some other issues were really getting to be quite disastrous. As the controversy got hotter and hotter, I believe that I was becoming more and more of a distraction for the White House and that the honorable thing to do was to remove myself so that the country and the organization could move forward.”
Southers claims he stepped down due to the hold placed on his nomination by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), in December over his potential support for unionization among TSA workers. Far more damaging was his recent admission that he misled members of Congress regarding an incident in 1987 where he abused his authority as an FBI agent to run background checks on his estranged wife’s boyfriend.
Southers initially told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in a sworn affidavit that he asked a San Diego Police Department employee to run a check on the boyfriend out of concern for his 1-year-old son and was later censured by the FBI for doing so. One day after the committee approved his nomination on November 19, Southers wrote a letter to Committee Chair Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine), explaining that his initial account had been erroneous:
After reviewing documents, he wrote, he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife’s boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee, the letter said.
Southers said Thursday that the discrepancies were simply a case of poor memory, despite the fact the events were a matter of official record:
“Quite frankly, I had written in an affidavit and testified, of course, in the hearing to what I remembered from 1987 and, as you probably have learned, upon being read that letter of censure — of reprimand last month — I was made aware of the fact that what I had testified to and written was incorrect.”
This month seven senators including DeMint wrote to the White House demanding more details on the incident, which Southers did not attempt to deny or excuse:
“It was wrong. It was a need-to-know database and I didn’t have a need to know, although I was driven by the fact that the individual living in my home was living with my one year old son, which has not been mentioned in any media, but I’m not justifying it. I just want to present the reasoning behind it.
Those reasons of course would be of little use to civil libertarians already concerned about TSA’s use of passenger information during security screenings. Ultimately, Southers said it was the White House’s lack of support that ended up prompting his withdrawal:
Asked whether the White House had suggested the move, however, Southers said, “Not verbally, but the inaction on their part in terms of defending me might — maybe, perhaps I should’ve been a little more perceptive.” And, according to Southers, the White House had barely blinked an eye after hearing that he would be dropping out. “I did get a very positive statement from Nick Shapiro, who is the White House spokesperson, but that’s the only reaction I ever got,” he said.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro called Southers “uniquely qualified for the job” but expressed confidence in the leadership team currently in place at the agency, which has dominated the headlines since the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day in Detroit.