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President's Second Choice for Transportation Security Chief Withdraws From Consideration

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's second nominee for transportation security chief withdrew from consideration Friday because of questions over his background as a defense contractor.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding took himself out of the running as head of the Transportation Security Administration, another setback for Obama after his first choice withdrew in January because he faced a tough confirmation struggle in Congress. The Obama administration has called the job the most important unfilled position on Obama's team.

"I feel that the distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this administration nor for the Department of Homeland Security," Harding said in a late-evening statement released by the White House. The agency is part of Homeland Security.

Harding had extensive intelligence experience that Obama hoped to tap in shoring up airport screening and other anti-terrorism transportation fronts. He retired from the Army in 2001, ending a three-decade career during which he served as the Defense Department's top human intelligence officer, managing a $1 billion intelligence collection program.

Harding became a government consultant on human intelligence and counterintelligence, selling his company in 2009.

Questions arose after his nomination about a contract his company had with the government to provide interrogators in Iraq. After the government ended the contract early, in 2004, Harding Security Associates claimed more money from termination of the contract than the Defense Department's inspector general said it was entitled to get. The firm refunded $1.8 million of that money in a 2008 settlement with the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A little over two months ago, Erroll Southers withdrew his nomination to lead the TSA after it became apparent he would have trouble winning confirmation. In that episode, questions were raised about a reprimand that Southers, a top official with Los Angeles police, had received for running background checks on his then-estranged wife's boyfriend two decades ago. He acknowledged giving Congress inconsistent answers to Congress on the matter.

Obama had waited eight months before nominating Southers. Now Harding's withdrawal means more delays in filling the top job in transportation security when the nation is trying to fortify defenses against attacks such as the Christmas bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit, which was foiled by passengers.

The announcement about Harding came late on a Friday, a period favored by the government for releasing uncomfortable news because the public's attention is light. There was no immediate word on finding another nominee.

"By nominating General Harding, the president tapped an individual with more than 35 years of military and intelligence experience who is dedicated to improving the security of our nation," said White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro. "The president is disappointed in this outcome but remains confident in the solid team of professionals at TSA."