Senate aides vetting President Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration are looking into whether the company he founded worked at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which became notorious in 2004 after stories emerged of prisoner abuse there.
Harding Security Associates, a defense and intelligence contracting business, posted job openings in early 2004 for a "Debriefer/Interrogator" and a "Debriefer." According to the postings, the Debriefer/Interrogator would conduct interrogations and support the Joint Interrogation Debriefing Center. The Debriefer would assist in conducting interrogations and support the center.
According to U.S. Central Command, the center was located at the military's Abu Ghraib forward operating base in Baghdad.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, who is President Obama's pick to head TSA, founded Harding Security Associates in 2003 and sold it in July. In a 2007 statement posted on its Web site, the company says it is "highly versed in debriefing and interrogation operations; international law and procedures for screening, interrogations and collection."
It also mentions past "contractual efforts with on site" personnel for a variety of defense and intelligence units, including the "Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) Interrogator and Debriefer support in Iraq."
A military investigation uncovered abuses at Abu Ghraib by military police personnel that occurred from October-December 2003. A subsequent Senate Armed Services Committee probe also looked at the role of civilian contractors at the prison but did not implicate Harding Security Associates in the abuse of prisoners.
In a statement late Wednesday, an Obama administration official confirmed that Harding Security sent 22 personnel to Iraq from February-August 2004 under a contract with the Defense Intelligence Agency "to provide interrogator and debriefer services in support of the Iraq Survey Group."
The contract was awarded in January 2004, the official said.
"All of the contractors provided by HSA were highly trained and experienced, and were sent to Iraq after the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib," the official said. "Major General Harding does not have any reason to believe that the contractors engaged in, or have been accused of engaging in, any inappropriate interrogation activities during their time as HSA contractors."
The official did not answer directly whether those personnel worked at Abu Ghraib.
"All of these personnel were assigned to Camp Slayer, Baghdad, and reported to the Iraq Survey Group, which is a separate entity from the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center," the official said.
The official added that the job posting "was drafted in accordance with DIA specs at the time and does not state that the contractors would be stationed at the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center."
But the whole matter was enough to raise questions among aides vetting Harding, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter.
And, if questions continue to mount about Harding's background, it could cause his confirmation hearings next week to be delayed. The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday; the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for Wednesday.
Officially, spokespersons for the committees would only say they are thoroughly vetting Harding.
The Obama administration has described the TSA administrator as its most important unfilled position. And the stakes for filling the position have risen for the White House.
Obama's previous choice, Erroll Southers, withdrew from consideration in January in the face of Republican concerns that he was not forthcoming in answering questions about improperly accessing confidential criminal records in 1987 and 1988.
This article appears in the March 20, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.