Help Wanted

176 White House appointees are still unconfirmed. One year into the Obama presidency, what's taking so long?

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a disaffected 23-year-old Nigerian, attempted to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. It was one of the most serious breaches of the United States' air security since September 11, 2001. And it occurred at a moment when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the body created after 9/11 specifically to prevent such breaches, had no leader. Erroll Southers -- an airport security chief in Los Angeles, former FBI agent, and professor at the University of Southern California -- is one of dozens of officials still pending confirmation: not rejected for their positions, but also not paid, not permitted to send deputies to sit in on relevant meetings, and not allowed to work provisionally. Unconfirmed appointees have no bureaucratic role at all. (Update: Southers withdrew his nomination the morning of Jan. 20, citing the political maelstrom over his appointment.)

Congressional dithering on nominees is, in and of itself, nothing new. Four years ago, Republicans were incensed over holds on judicial nominees and then-President George W. Bush's appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some senators even considered trying to change the Senate's approval requirement from 60 to 50 to help speed the process.

But President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177. And dozens of those holds are directly affecting the agencies responsible for the United States' security and foreign policy, amid two wars and an amped-up terrorism threat. The United States has no ambassador to Ethiopia, no head of the Office of Legal Counsel, no director at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, no agricultural trade representative.

Indeed, the TSA spot wasn't the only one left empty when it was most needed. For instance, during the worst of the Honduran constitutional crisis, in June, the United States had no assistant undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere -- the position responsible for coordinating the response of the United States' policymakers for South America. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, had slapped a hold on Georgetown University professor and longtime diplomat Arturo Valenzuela to protest the Obama administration's relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and its response to Honduras. (Valenzuela finally won confirmation in November.)

The most absurd hold of 2009, perhaps, was on Miriam Sapiro, whom the Obama administration appointed to become a U.S. trade representative. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, held up the respected Internet policy specialist's nomination over -- really -- candy-flavored cigarettes. Big Tobacco, with Bunning on its side, wanted the Obama administration to lobby against Canada's banning of flavored cigarettes like cloves, which are particularly popular among underage smokers. According to the New York Times, Bunning lifted the hold only when Democrats agreed to put a Republican, Michael Khouri, on the Federal Maritime Commission. (In the end, Bunning didn't even attend the vote that confirmed Sapiro.)

Other holds have had only tangential relevance to the position in question. For instance, Southers isn't on hold over concerns about his work performance, political leanings, or employment history. DeMint (one of Congress's most avid holders, by reputation at least) is blocking Southers over concerns over unionization.

TSA employees aren't permitted to bargain collectively, over fears that labor negotiations or strikes might disrupt airport security. Southers, Obama, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano have said they would review the policy -- and thereby precluded the United States from having a TSA chief on the day of the attempted terrorist attack. Since the Flight 253 incident, DeMint hasn't backed down, telling Fox News, "[Allowing unionization] is the last thing we need to do right now."

Then there's Lael Brainard, a former MIT economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow. The lauded economist was tapped to be the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, spearheading U.S. economic policy relations with international governments and institutions such as the World Bank. But her approval was held up over muck-ups on her taxes.

This year, she has not been present to negotiate the vital issue of currency exchange rates with China, for example, leaving ongoing talks to other members of the Treasury's staff. The Senate Finance Committee only just approved her, and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has said he might put another hold on her before the vote reaches the Senate floor -- not due to Brainard's politics or policies, but due to what he believes to be unfair Internal Revenue Service levies on small businesses.

The hold on Brainard's and others' key trade posts isn't just harmful in Washington. It is attracting international attention. Foreign officials have voiced concerns that the United States' inability to sew up its higher levels of office demonstrates that the country isn't going to be a reliable and committed partner in trade talks, like the still-incomplete Doha round.

Diplomatic officials in other countries also lament their empty embassies. The ambassadors to Andorra, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Hungary, Mauritius, Mozambique, Serbia, the Seychelles, Spain, and Uruguay -- most entirely noncontroversial -- only won approval the day before Christmas.

Indeed, in general, past confirmed diplomatic officials explain, the congressional process is harmful to the agencies impacted and, frankly, harmful to foreign relations. "The whole confirmation process is so cumbersome and lengthy; it isn't unusual to have a vacancy of a year or more for ambassadorships," explains Otto Reich, a longtime diplomat for Latin America who was put on hold three times for State Department positions.

He describes how his successor as the ambassador for Venezuela did not arrive until 14 months after he left. "The Venezuelans were furious. They said it -- not publicly -- but they said, 'This is an illustration [that] you don't think we're an important country.' We had to explain to them that this had nothing to do with Venezuela, and everything to do with our confirmation process."

Of course, the hold and other dilatory measures, including delays in committee voting, exist for a reason: to allow Congress to act as a check on the executive branch and to ensure applicants for important leadership positions receive sufficient scrutiny. But too often, they just allow for inter-congressional horse-trading. Plus, holds are a formality, taking advantage of unanimous consent rules. The hold, per se, doesn't exist. There's no ledger for it. It's just a threat to gum up Congress.

But try explaining that to an irate diplomat or a confused TSA employee, the day after an attempted attack. A year into the Obama administration, we shouldn't have to.

On the next page, see a list of unconfirmed nominees. 

See the White House's list of nominees here. Below, a sample of those relevant to U.S. security  and foreign policy.

David Adelman, ambassador to Singapore

Brooke Anderson, ambassador-rank representative to the United Nations

Mari Carmen Aponte, ambassador to El Salvador

George Apostolakis, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Alan Douglas Bersin, commissioner of U.S. customs at the Department of Homeland Security

Sandford Blitz, federal co-chair of the Northern Border Regional Commission

Donald E. Booth, ambassador to Ethiopia

Rafael Borras, undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security

Charles Collyns, assistant secretary for international finance at the Treasury Department

Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force

Donald Lloyd Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs at the Department of Energy

Philip Coyle, associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy

Scott DeLisi, ambassador to Nepal

Eileen Donahoe, representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council

Philip Goldberg, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department

Elizabeth Harman, assistant administrator for grants programs at FEMA

Eric Hirschhorn, undersecretary of commerce for export administration at the Department of Commerce

Michael Huerta, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration

Dawn Johnsen, assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Counsel

Walter Jones, U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank

Allan Katz, ambassador to Portugal

Ian Kelly, U.S. representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Frank Kendall, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology

Laura Kennedy, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Betty Eileen King, U.S. permanent representative at the United Nations in Geneva

Suresh Kumar, assistant secretary of commerce and director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service

Marisa Lago, assistant secretary of the Treasury for international markets and development

Nicole Lamb-Hale, assistant secretary for manufacturing and services at the International Trade Administration

Elizabeth Littlefield, president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

William Magwood, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Warren Fletcher Miller Jr., director of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

Mary John Miller, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial markets

David Warden Mills, assistant secretary of Commerce for export enforcement

Malcom Ross O'Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, technology, and logistics

Paul Luis Oostburg Sanz, general counsel of the Navy

Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for installations and environment

Michael Ward Punke, U.S. deputy trade representative to Geneva

Douglas Alan Rediker, U.S. alternate executive director for the International Monetary Fund

Jessie Hill Roberson, member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

Mark Rosekind, member of the National Transportation Safety Board

Juan Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the Department of Commerce

Islam Ahmaed Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator of the Office of the United States Trade Representative

Ian Hoddy Solomon, U.S. executive director for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development at the World Bank

Erroll Gregory Southers, assistant secretary of homeland security and administrator of the Transportation Security Administration

Clifford Lee Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness

Judith Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs

Harry Thomas, ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines

Benjamin Burgess Tucker, deputy director at the Office for National Drug Control Policy

Caryn Anne Wagner, undersecretary of Homeland Security for intelligence and analysis

Solomon Brown Watson IV, general counsel of the Army

Beatrice Wilkinson Welters, ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago

Bisa Williams, ambassador to the Republic of Niger

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Camp Nowhere

The U.S. government might stop transferring Yemeni Guantánamo detainees back home. But where will they go?

Barack Obama is in a tight spot. Just when the U.S. president was in the process of transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Flight 253, and suddenly Yemen, with its resurgent al Qaeda presence, started looking like a less acceptable destination. Detainee transfers have now been delayed, as they should be -- but what is going to happen to the 91 Yemeni detainees still in custody, more than 30 of whom have been cleared for release?

Obama has three options: restarting transfers to Yemen with new pressure on the Yemeni government to step up deradicalization efforts, sending the detainees to a Saudi-led rehabilitation program, or detaining them indefinitely in U.S. custody. None of these choices is ideal, but Obama still has the opportunity to find an acceptable long-term solution.

In fact, sending the detainees to Yemen was never an ideal option. To date, U.S. officials have transferred to Yemen more than 20 detainees whom it deemed a lower security risk, relying on assurances from the Yemenis that they would mitigate whatever threat the detainees did pose. Indeed, between 2000 and 2005, the Sanaa government supported a rehabilitation program for its own prisoners, the Yemeni Committee for Dialogue. Its chair, Qadi Hamoud al-Hitar, publicly claimed that his efforts to engage prisoners in religious dialogue and reintegrate them into society were successful.

But the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. One participant, a former al Qaeda commander, said in private conversations that the "dialogue" consisted of short meetings during which prisoners were encouraged to sign forms pledging obedience to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The dialogue did not address engaging in terrorist activity outside Yemen, nor did it effectively provide post-release support. Reports suggest that several graduates returned to their violent ways, many of them in Iraq. Moreover, plans for renewing and improving deradicalization efforts -- as the Yemenis promised before transferring detainees -- are still in the very early stages. One Yemeni official remarked last fall, "Lots of people [are] thinking about it, but nothing [is] being done."

If Obama decides to continue sending detainees back to Yemen, the United States could continue pushing Sanaa to revamp its rehabilitation program. But this approach comes with serious risks and would require significant outside guidance, financial support, and political pressure. Rehabilitation plans remain in the early stages, and no money has been allocated to the endeavor. If this approach is pursued, Washington would need to guarantee the involvement of key Yemeni domestic agencies such as the National Security Bureau and the Political Security Organization; religious and civil society leaders; and both international and domestic NGOs. NGOs should assist with social-service and family-oriented programming and provide external auditing to protect against the misuse of funds. U.S. officials must also make it explicitly clear that the Yemeni government is accountable for the program's success.

Even with significant external support, one Yemeni official estimates the program would rehabilitate just 30 to 40 percent of participants. Yemen struggles with pervasive poverty, growing political unrest, and a resurgent al Qaeda. These factors make deradicalization even more difficult than it is already. Saleh is focused primarily on defeating the Houthi rebellion in the north, quashing a southern secessionist movement, and managing a festering socioeconomic crisis. Given the energy spent on these and other domestic priorities, the Yemeni government lacks the will and capacity to develop and implement an effective rehabilitation program. As one Yemeni noted, Saleh "can't deal with this right now."

The second option, sending the detainees to Saudi Arabia, is potentially a far better alternative. The Saudi deradicalization program is not perfect, and a number of its graduates have returned to violent jihad. But, unlike in Yemen, the Saudis continue to assess and revise their deradicalization strategies, evaluation metrics, and post-release programs to meet these challenges. Although the Saudis have resisted accepting Yemeni detainees in the past, Obama could use the growing instability in Yemen and the potential threat released detainees pose to Saudi security to convince them to support this approach.

If the Saudis agree, several changes would increase the likelihood of success. First, the program should include Yemeni families, scholars, and clerics in the Saudi counseling staff. Yemeni detainees should only be transferred to Saudi Arabia in small groups, and transfers should be sequenced to allow time for a rehabilitation process that will require trial-and-error adaptations and ongoing evaluations. Just as importantly, an after-care program should be established in Yemen to help reintegrate released detainees, who will face joblessness, social stigma, and, possibly, al Qaeda recruitment. Moreover, Yemeni-led security monitoring will likely be ad hoc and largely ineffective; externally supported Yemeni post-release programs are necessary to help address this challenge.

This approach might provoke concern from senior Yemeni officials, the detainees' families, and the Yemeni public. But if Saleh publicly supports the idea and Saudi Arabia facilitates family visits, the opposition could be overcome. Although concerns remain over whether the Saudis can effectively rehabilitate non-Saudi nationals, particularly because efforts to date have stressed full and continuous family engagement, Saudi rehabilitation experts have a better chance than the Yemenis, who lack both resources and an established program. Given Yemen's growing instability and current al Qaeda activity in the country, transferring detainees to Saudi Arabia is the best strategic solution.

As always, continued detention in U.S. custody remains an option and might be the most practical solution in the immediate term, particularly given the instability in Yemen and the untested effectiveness of Saudi rehabilitation efforts for Yemenis. Although potentially a complicated proposition from both a legal and operational perspective, this approach will address ongoing security concerns while the Obama administration continues to evaluate next steps. After Saudi officials refine their rehabilitation efforts, particularly with respect to non-Saudi nationals, and a Yemeni post-release program is established, the decision should be revisited.

Ultimately, there is no perfect solution. Not all detainees are created equal, and all available options present risks. For the Yemeni detainees presenting the most significant security threat, continued detention might be the only solution. For the rest, preparations must be made now for the day when continued detention is untenable. This means working with both the Yemenis and the Saudis to find a realistic, long-term solution that will be acceptable to the American public and the international community.