HELP WANTED: High level travel administration job

by Laura Townsend Elion on March 30, 2010

    Needed Immediately! Level-headed individual with a clean record needed for full-time employment. Job involves administrative management and public speaking. Skills needed include the ability to multi-task, supervise, and deal with a variety of personalities. Good communications skills/diplomacy a must. A background in security/law enforcement is a required. Some travel involved…

Out of work? We have a job opening for you! Head of the TSA! Apply now! What traveler wouldn’t want this job? You get to bust terrorists (the goofballs responsible for that two hour wait to get on the plane and the numerous invasions of privacy) and give some pushback to the airlines (the goofballs that raise and lower fares more times than the flag outside that Capitol, charge you for everything but breathing in the cabin, and keep you stuck on the tarmac without so much as a peanut for 11 hours straight).

Seems the latest candidate for the position told the Obama administration “No” over the weekend, explaining that a past job as a contractor that provided interrogators in Iraq for the Pentagon might get in the way. (Hey, no kidding!)

Doesn’t anybody want this job? Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, with 33 years in military intelligence, was only the latest to turn down this job. Erroll Southers withdrew his nomination in January and the position has been unfilled for over a year. What’s worse is that there doesn’t appear to be anyone else on the short list of candidates.

So, what does this mean?

When I was in corporate work, I remember some high-ranking MBA saying that if a job was vacant for over a year, that just proved it wasn’t needed. I wasn’t sure about that strategy then, and I wouldn’t apply it here.

While Southers might have proved to be unsuitable and a little overly ambitious in producing background checks (he bowed out from consideration after it was revealed that while with the FBI he had investigated his ex- wife’s boyfriend), the task of overseeing the TSA is right up at the top in ensuring our public safety.

While part of the year-plus delay in staffing it is due to the fact that Congress gets to vet the hopefuls, discovering that someone interested in the position has been a bit over-zealous in subjecting someone to the technical equivalent of a full cavity search, and that the next would-be head honcho has a sideline in coercing information out of people, seems to prove that maybe better someone needs to hunt up some more suitable candidates.

It’s a shame that the administration hasn’t been able to rustle some good choices. Major Harding has the penultimate background in intelligence operations (he once ran a $1B intelligence gathering operation while at Defense) that would seem to ensure a top-notch effort at combating terrorism in the airways. However, there should have been at least a smattering of recognition that the appointment of someone whose primary occupation was once sweating the bad guys would make the civil rights types nervous enough to start penning pre-emptive strikes of litigation. There was also a little matter of a payment dispute (or over-billing, depending which side you believe) between his company and the government.

Southers, too, looked like a good choice on paper (he was the assistant police chief at LAX when summoned), but the admission that he was less than truthful during confirmation hearings about his FBI reprimand for ‘overreaching’ on the investigation of his former wife’s new squeeze should have travelers quaking in their shoes wondering what else he might fib to Congress about if appointed.

On further examination, his ethical ‘lapses’ related to that search included downloading confidential information and passing it along to other law enforcement officials so that they could harass the subject. On the issues of data lapses, security breaches, profiling, or overzealous TSA employees – how would the public ever trust his testimony?

Given that any position within the TSA is ripe for accusations of abuse it seems it would be tough to find a perfect fit. Critics will be quick to lob charges against those whose past experience smacks of being too tough on citizens and too quick to infringe on individual rights, while those who appear cozy with the airline industry will be accused of being too closely allied with their interests, and anyone with even the slightest brush with civil rights on their resumé can forget it – strategy committees with Homeland Security would erupt into brawls.

What we need is a perfect storm candidate that has the necessary expertise in security measures and technology, the courage of a Rosa Parks, the sensitivity of Buddha, the foresight and innovative mind of a Da Vinci, the resolve of Roosevelt, and the discretion of bordello madam.

Meanwhile, back on the tarmac, as the saying goes, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been ’filling in’ where necessary to provide guidance on some areas affecting international issues — such as sharing information from security screenings — but the U.S. needs more than part-time supervision of this tremendously important area.

The next TSA boss will have to wrangle with such potentially explosive (no pun intended) topics as collective bargaining for security screeners, and gaps in our security technology capacities (those controversial whole-body imagers have been found to be somewhat unreliable in detecting some forms of explosives). Add to these roles the de facto title of being the ‘go to’ guy the world over for consulting with the international community on aviation security, and you have some rather pressing concerns.

In the present environment where there is no one to set the tone, define the policy, engage the world, manage the airlines, and establish security measures with consistency, we are like sitting ducks.

Every military head knows you strike when the opposition’s leadership is down (see #6 in “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu). Georges Clemenceau once said, “War is too important a business to be left to soldiers,” and while those screeners on the front lines continue on no matter what, in reality, ensuring the safety and security of traveling in the air without a chief at the TSA is like believing the Hydra can find its way without a head. But mostly, I compare the current scenario to the classic “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” because while we blithely delude ourselves that we are sophisticated enough to withstand any assault, the enemy knows we are actually naked.

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  • Hapgood

    Who actually WOULD want that job? It’s the equivalent of trying to run an insane asylum that the lunatic (bureaucratic) residents took over a long time ago.

    The TSA has the irreconcilable goals of protecting aviation from a repeat 9/11 attack (in the absence of a coherent, coordinated intelligence structure capable of stopping the plots before they get to the airport), while keeping herds of innocent passengers flowing smoothly through the checkpoints so they can get to their flights. They’ve proved incapable of achieving either goal, and earned themselves a reputation as bullying buffoons committed solely to inflicting absurdity as inconsistently as possible. So the public simultaneously reviles and ridicules the TSA, except for those trusting souls who somehow find the security theater reassuring.

    For the moment, let’s assume there exists someone with the competence, experience, and vision to undertake the Herculean labor of rebuilding the TSA from the ground up, to make it an agency that the public respects and trusts. That person would probably find a bloated bureaucracy so entrenched and intransigent that any change will prove impossible. That person also won’t get any help from Congress, which would resist any reforms that potential opponents might consider as “weakening security.” So any visionary leader would soon abandon any vision or notions of reform. If he or she wanted to keep the job, the only recourse would be to rearrange those deck chairs yet again– and then hopefully get out of the way so that someone else will take the blame when the Titanic TSA finally hits the iceberg.

    And of course, any candidate could look forward to confirmation scrutiny that includes not only inspection of shoes and liquids, but repeated probes of every body cavity.

    What this all means is that, if and when Obama finally manages to dredge up a candidate who can withstand the scrutiny and is willing to take the job, that person inevitably will be a politically safe, thoroughly mediocre bureaucrat with little experience, even less intelligence and certainly no vision. He or she will certainly have neither the interest nor the ability to fix anything. He or she will simply be the Head Lunatic in the asylum, conducting business as usual and reacting to the inevitable “incidents” by adding even more absurd hassles to be inflicted as inconsistently as possible.

    Thus the TSA’s new motto, applicable to passengers as well as potential leaders: “Abandon all hope ye who enter.”

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