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Obama Taps Ex-Intel Officer For Aviation Security

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Barack Obama said today he will nominate a retired Army officer with intelligence community experience to lead aviation security efforts amid concerns about passenger planes being bombed or hijacked.

Obama chose retired Major General Robert Harding to head the Transportation Security Administration after his first pick, Erroll Southers, withdrew from consideration when Republicans questioned whether he would try to unionize the workforce that screens travelers and luggage at U.S. airports.

"I am confident that Bob's talent and expertise will make him a tremendous asset in our ongoing efforts to bolster security and screening measures at our airports," Obama said in a statement.

Harding previously served as deputy to the Army's chief of intelligence and as director for operations in the Defense Intelligence Agency. After he left the Army, he started his own security advisory firm, which he sold in 2009.

"The TSA administrator is among the most important unfilled posts in the Obama administration," Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the TSA, told reporters and urged the Senate to act on his nomination quickly.

Airport screening in the United States and abroad has been under heightened scrutiny after a Nigerian man tried but failed to explode a bomb hidden in his clothes aboard a U.S. passenger plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December. And four U.S. planes were hijacked and crashed on September 11, 2001.

The DHS plans to have some 450 full-body imaging scanners in operation this year in a bid to thwart such plots and is seeking funding from Congress to buy 500 more of the machines.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint had blocked Southers' nomination because of concerns about unionizing the workforce as well as testimony he gave to the Senate about a reprimand he received in the 1980s.

A spokesman for DeMint was not immediately available for comment on Harding's nomination.

Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee which will consider the nomination, said she looked "forward to meeting with General Harding to discuss his qualifications and the many challenges facing the TSA."