TSA nominee runs into flak over improper database access

Republicans ask about Erroll Southers' access of FBI criminal database 20 years ago

The improper use of a federal database two decades ago by Erroll Southers, the White House nominee to be administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has caught the attention of Republican lawmakers.

Seven GOP senators yesterday sent a letter to Nancy Hogan, special assistant to the President, asking for more details about discrepancies in Southers' description of the incident during his nomination hearing last November.

"We believe that Mr. Southers submitted erroneous and possibly misleading information regarding ethical violations" related to the improper access, the senators wrote in their letter. Among those who signed the letter were Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). In addition, a spokesman from Coburn's office today confirmed media reports about the senator placing a hold on Southers nomination until a reply comes from the White House.

Southers, a former FBI agent, was nominated by the Obama Administration last fall to lead the TSA. As part of disclosures he made to the Senate Homeland Security Committee during the nomination process, Southers revealed that he had been censured by the FBI for improperly accessing an FBI criminal database in 1987 and 1988.

In his original description of the issue, Southers said he had asked a San Diego police officer to access records pertaining to his ex-wife's boyfriend. But one day after his nomination was approved by the Senate in November, he admitted that he had twice accessed the records himself.

A story in the Washington Post quoted Southers, in a letter to the Senate, as saying the discrepancy resulted from his faulty recollection of the entire incident. The paper, which claimed to have seen Southers' letter, quoted him as accepting responsibility for a "grave error in judgment many years ago."

In their letter to Hogan yesterday, the Republican senators raised 13 specific questions related to Southers' actions and his description of it to the Senate. The want to know, for instance, when the White House knew about Southers' FBI censure, what other actions the agency may have taken against him and any information in documents relating to the FBI's probe of the incident.

Cases involving improper database access by people with legitimate access are not that uncommon. One of the more publicized incidents in recent times involved several employees at the U.S. State Department who in 2008 were caught improperly snooping on the passport records of dozens of high-profile individuals including then-Sen. Barack Obama and numerous others. And last year, Kaiser Permanente hospital fired 15 employees and reprimanded eight others for improperly accessing the personal medical records of Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets in January 2008.

The questions about Southers could further delay the appointment of a new TSA administrator. DeMint has already blocked Southers' appointment for more than four months now on an unrelated issue.

The controversy comes amid continuing concerns over security failures that resulted in a botched attempt to blow up an international flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. It also comes just a few weeks after the TSA found itself being blasted for accidentally posting a document containing detailed information on its airport screening procedures.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, send e-mail to jvijayan@computerworld.com or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed .

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