Obama transport security pick avoids Iraq contract pothole

March 24, 2010

President Barack Obama’s pick to oversee U.S. transportation security appears to have dodged a major pothole on the road to being confirmed by the Senate after assuaging concerns about a government contract his old firm won to provide interrogators in Iraq.

Retired Major General Robert Harding was under the microscope at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday for his nomination to head the Transportation Security Administration, a job that has been filled on a temporary basis since Obama took office.

Harding spent more than three decades in the U.S. military, including a stint as deputy to the Army’s chief of intelligence and director for operations in the Defense Intelligence Agency. After retiring, he set up his own security consulting firm which he sold last year. SECURITY-AIRLINE/

The top Republican on the panel, Maine Senator Susan Collins, grilled Harding about a $6 million contract his former company, Harding Security Associates, won from the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2004 to provide interrogators and debriefers in Iraq — the company had to reimburse the government nearly one-third of that amount.

Harding told the committee that he hired 40 people, but three months into the contract the government decided that it no longer needed the outside interrogators and debriefers and terminated the contract. One concern raised during an audit of the contract was that he tried to get about $800,000 reimbursed for severance he paid to the employees.

The two sides settled the case and Harding’s firm paid back about $1.8 million.

“I’m convinced that I made a mistake. This was our largest, and our most important contract. And in an effort to stay engaged with my client, in an effort to stay engaged with my employees and take care of them, in an effort to take care of my stakeholders, which is the Iraq support group, I lost sight of the fact that I also had to be cognizant of what was going on in my back room, in the accounting shop, in the contract shop,” Harding told the panel.

He said that afterwards he hired a chief financial officer, installed accounting software and hired more staff. Harding added that his experience with the contract would be useful in the TSA job to ensure taxpayer money is used appropriately.

“Based on today’s hearing and my review of the record, I believe General Harding has adequately addressed my concerns regarding his former firm’s contract with the Defense Department,” Collins said in a statement after the hearing.

“Before making a final determination on the nomination, however, I want to review additional information in order to ensure that all relevant data regarding the nominee have been thoroughly examined,” she said.

In response to another question from Collins, Harding said none of his interrogators or debriefers had been accused of abusing or mistreating prisoners amid some reports there had been such cases at a base in Iraq.

A spokeswoman for the chairman of the committee, Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, said that he “was satisfied with the General’s responses to multiple questions about the contract that were posed to him at today’s hearing.”

- Photo credit: Reuters/Mike Segar (A TSA screener searches a traveler at Newark airport.)

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