May 12--For 25 years, Mark Hatfield Jr. forged a successful career in public relations and political event planning that included White House jobs in two administrations.
Recently, he took on a new profession: anti-terrorism.
Today, Hatfield is the acting federal security chief at Newark Liberty International Airport, where five years ago hijackers boarded United Flight 93.
Now his credentials for this sensitive Transportation Security Administration post are being questioned by aviation and security experts who say he's unqualified.
"How do you put the security of a major New York airport in the hands of someone who has absolutely no security training?" said Michael Boyd, an aviation industry consultant. "This guy has no security background at all -- none. He has no business being in that job. He should be removed immediately."
Hatfield -- the son of former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, a powerful Republican from Oregon -- said he has made significant strides since being named to the post in March, after having been the deputy director since September. Under his leadership, Hatfield said, he has increased training, improved employee morale and strengthened relations with airlines.
"I stand ready to be judged on my performance," said Hatfield, who is a candidate to be named the permanent director. "The results of our work here are clearly observable. There's no doubt about this -- the security buck stops at my desk. I am the accountable party."
Critics, however, say Hatfield is an anomaly. In fact, he is the only TSA security director among those at the 20 busiest U.S. airports without a lengthy prior military, law-enforcement or airline industry career, according to an analysis by The Record.
The aviation and security experts wonder if Hatfield should hold a post traditionally staffed by people with those professional backgrounds. They question his qualifications to lead more than 1,000 TSA screeners and security personnel at Newark Liberty, a force roughly the same size as the Newark Police Department.
"Newark [Liberty] was one of the targets on 9/11," Boyd said, referring to the United flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. "To put someone in charge of security who has no security experience is an outrage. It spits in the face of the people who died."
TSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when hijackers slipped past low-paid private security guards and smuggled box cutters aboard jets that they later hijacked. TSA airport security directors oversee the federal employees who screen passengers with metal detectors and who X-ray luggage looking for bombs.
"The TSA has a very important role in counterterrorism," said Bob Pence, a former FBI agent who headed the bureau's Denver office "One of the main reasons that they came into existence was to try to stop acts of terrorism and try to detect people who might be in the business of terrorism," he said.
Pence called TSA's decision to put a person with Hatfield's resume in the Newark Liberty Airport post "very unusual."
"I don't know of any [TSA airport security directors] who haven't had some sort of a military or law-enforcement or aviation background," he said.
Before joining TSA, Hatfield worked in public relations, as a lobbyist and as a White House event planner in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.Â W. Bush. Hatfield also worked on the campaigns of those presidents, and once helped plan a summer concert tour for the Beach Boys. His resume is not without some law-enforcement experience: For three years in the 1980s, he was a sworn reserve officer for the Portland, Ore., Police Department, where he made arrests and carried a gun, he said.
Experts believe Newark Liberty would be particularly attractive to terrorists. United Flight 93 demonstrated as much, as does the airport's proximity to prime terror targets. Manhattan's towering high-rises are only a minute or two away by air, as are downtown Newark and New Jersey's chemical plants and refineries.
Hatfield, 45, has his supporters. They say he is extremely capable and brings depth of experience from his many years working as a spokesman and political advance man in the federal government. They say Hatfield also has learned a great deal during his nearly four years with the TSA.
Some of that time was spent at the agency's Washington headquarters, where he attended senior daily intelligence briefings. Hatfield actively participated in detailed discussions at the agency's highest levels about security incidents and problems at the nation's airports, officials said.
Hatfield signed on with the agency in November 2002 as a media spokesman for the Northeast United States. A year later, he was named TSA's assistant administrator and head of its communications office.
In September 2005, the agency named Hatfield as the deputy security director at Newark Liberty. George Nacarra, who was then TSA's Northeast region director, says he recommended Hatfield for that job and believes he now makes an excellent security director at Newark Liberty, which last year served more than 33 million passengers.
"The qualities that are most important for this job are strong leadership, the ability to get along with people -- someone who projects enthusiasm, authority and self confidence," said Nacarra, who is now TSA's chief at Boston Logan Airport. "I felt Mark had all of these attributes."
Nacarra also said Hatfield had good relations with the media and had been the head of marketing and public relations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the late 1990s. The Port Authority operates Newark Liberty, as well as JFK, La Guardia and Teterboro airports.
David Stone, a retired Navy rear admiral who headed TSA from 2003-2005, said he, too, found Hatfield to be an effective leader and highly competent at his job. Stone said he has no qualms about having Hatfield run a major security operation.
"I think he's a very, very appropriate candidate for Newark Airport," Stone said.
Hatfield was appointed as acting Newark TSA chief in March after the departure of his predecessor, Marcus Arroyo, a former Navy SEAL and Federal Aviation Administration security official. Arroyo departed under fire amid reports of security lapses at the airport.
Hatfield said he already has changed things for the better at Newark Liberty.
Under his leadership, he said, employee absenteeism and injuries are down, test scores are higher and discipline has been tightened.
"This is really my life passion right now, and I think the team I've got is really working well," Hatfield said.
Boyd, who is president of an aviation industry consulting firm in Colorado, says he believes that Hatfield won the post because of his high-octane GOP contacts in Washington.
"The only thing he's got going for him is his political connections," Boyd said. "This is a guy who is a political hack. He's going to put together a security plan for Newark [Liberty]? We might as well hire a grammar school to do it and make it a class project."
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