Bush Picks Aviation Security Chief

President Bush on Monday nominated a veteran federal law enforcement manager to head the new agency charged with aviation security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

John Magaw, 66, has gained a reputation during his more than 40-year government career for turning troubled bureaucracies around. He rose through the ranks to become head of the Secret Service, and directed reforms of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms after the Branch Davidian debacle. Most recently, he has helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency broaden its disaster relief mission to include plans for responding to terrorism.

Magaw was responsible for protecting Bush's father when he was president and vice president. If confirmed by the Senate to head the Transportation Security Administration, Magaw will face a rapid-fire series of deadlines set by Congress for a federal takeover of airport security. Ultimately, his toughest challenge may come in balancing security concerns with the desires of airlines and passengers for convenience and flexibility.

"They need someone who understands law enforcement and dealing with the public," said Douglas Laird, an aviation security consultant who served with Magaw in the Secret Service. "He's good with the troops, a good manager and a very good people person."

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, (D-S.C.), chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he is prepared to speed Magaw's confirmation through the Senate--if the nominee wins his confidence. "He sounds good to me, but I haven't met him yet," Hollings said.

In his new job, Magaw would be responsible for improving security across all forms of transportation--including ports, rail, roads and pipelines. But aviation remains the most pressing concern.

During a brief news conference Monday at the Transportation Department, Magaw said he is committed to seeking "the highest degree of safety with the least amount of disruption." He said he intends to dedicate his service to the people who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Citing his pending confirmation hearings, Magaw declined to answer questions from reporters.

But Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the department intends to meet the obligations imposed by Congress in the aviation security bill passed last month--including a January deadline for an initial system to screen all checked bags aboard domestic flights.

The nomination of Magaw marks a break in tradition for the Transportation Department. In previous years, when the Federal Aviation Administration was responsible for overseeing airport security, the agency had recruited retired generals and admirals to take charge. But they compiled an uneven record that frequently was criticized by watchdog agencies such as the General Accounting Office.

During the congressional debate over the new agency, many lawmakers argued that responsibility for aviation security should be taken away from Transportation and assigned to the Justice Department. By selecting someone with law enforcement credentials, the Bush administration was acknowledging those concerns.

"This agency needs to be more law enforcement-oriented than regulatory-oriented," Laird said. "There may have been some concerns over the agency remaining at Transportation. By appointing Magaw, they will certainly alleviate those fears."

Magaw got his start in law enforcement as a state trooper in Ohio. A graduate of Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, he began his career in 1959 at a time when most entry-level officers had only high school diplomas.

Presidents of both parties have pressed difficult assignments on Magaw. It was President Clinton who tapped him to head the ATF after the Branch Davidian incident in 1993. During six years at ATF, Magaw was credited with overhauling its enforcement philosophy and rebuilding morale.

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Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.