The White House sought to deflect criticism Wednesday of Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, whose uncharacteristic low profile during the inquiry into last week's crash of a Trans World Airlines jetliner has prompted a congressional chairman to complain of a lack of leadership at the department.
Pena had been the most visible federal spokesman in a series of past airline catastrophes, but he came under criticism during last May's ValuJet crash in Florida for immediately proclaiming his faith in the carrier's safety at a time when other federal officials had doubts.
In the past week, Pena has left the spotlight to other federal officials to such an extent that Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, declared that Pena has "totally vanished," leaving the department without its foremost advocate.
"He's the top transportation official in the country, and he's not come forward with a policy" on how to guarantee aviation safety needs, said a spokeswoman for Pressler.
Pressler has charged that Pena did not heed warnings from two Federal Aviation Administration officials in January about the need for beefed-up security at the nation's airports. And he charged that Pena has been unwilling to appear before the committee to discuss safety issues next week.
"There's a complete lack of leadership in this country on aviation policy, and it [the responsibility] has to go to the president and Secretary Pena," Pressler complained Tuesday on the CNN program "Larry King Live."
The top federal spokesmen on the TWA crash have been Robert Francis, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; James K. Kallstrom, the assistant FBI director who heads the agency's New York office, and Coast Guard and FAA officials.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that Pena has been "very active" on the TWA crash investigation and had sat in at a meeting Wednesday chaired by White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta.
"For those who have been working on the federal response . . . , he's been very visible, because he's been responsible for what the Transportation Department and the Coast Guard and others have been doing," McCurry said.
A senior administration official said that Pena had backed off his high-profile role after the ValuJet incident, in which "he felt he got burned by getting out there so quickly. . . . Maybe he's stepped back too far." This administration official insisted that Pena retains the full confidence of President Clinton but said it is far too early to predict whether the former Denver mayor will remain for a second term if Clinton is reelected.
Bill Schulz, a spokesman for Pena, countered that "the person who has been invisible has been Larry Pressler." He said that Pressler had declined the invitation of FAA security officials to meet with them.
"He has yet to find time on his schedule, so it's no surprise that Sen. Pressler doesn't know what he's talking about," Schulz said.
Schulz noted that Pena had been criticized by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) on the day of the crash for appearing at too many accident sites. He asserted that 95% of Pena's work "has always been behind the scenes."
And he contended that the complaints were coming only from Pressler and not from other Republicans.