WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s selection of a former top Pentagon lawyer to head the Homeland Security Department suggests the agency will be stepping back from its preoccupation with immigration to focus more on protecting the nation from attack.
Jeh C. Johnson, if confirmed by the Senate, would replace Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who left the DHS last month to become president of the University of California system. Obama announced Johnson’s nomination Friday.
Unlike Napolitano, Johnson has spent most of his career dealing with weighty national security issues as a top military lawyer. Issues he handled included ending the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for gay service members and changing military commissions to try terrorism suspects rather than using civilian courts. He also oversaw the escalation of the use of unmanned drone strikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as general counsel at the Defense Department.
Johnson, who left the Defense Department in 2012, previously served as the general counsel of the Air Force under President Bill Clinton. Earlier in his career, he served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he handled public corruption cases.
The Homeland Security Department’s responsibilities include routine immigration issues, cyber security, protecting the president and keeping would-be terrorists off airplanes. The DHS also includes the Coast Guard.
Johnson led a widespread crackdown on unauthorized leaks in the Defense Department, including warning former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette that by publishing a book on the SEALs’ raid that killed bin Laden, he was in “material breach” of two nondisclosure agreements he signed earlier in his career. Johnson also was involved in the investigation of retired Marine Gen. John Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.
Johnson sparked criticism when he said in a speech at Oxford University last November that the war on terror was not an endless conflict and that the U.S. was approaching a “tipping point” after which the military fight against al-Qaida would be replaced by a law enforcement and intelligence operation.
“War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs,” Johnson said. “In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the new normal.”
Johnson would be the third black member of Obama’s current Cabinet. He would join Attorney General Eric Holder and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. The president was criticized earlier this year for not having more blacks in his Cabinet.
Johnson would take over an agency with numerous high-level vacancies, including the deputy secretary. When Napolitano left, one-third of the heads of key agencies and divisions were filled with acting officials or had been vacant for months. Obama has nominated several people to key positions, including general counsel. His pick to be the department’s No. 2, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas, is the subject of an internal investigation, and his nomination has been stalled. Lawmakers applauded the selection of Johnson.
“This nomination comes at a critical time for the agency and its mission because, for the past several months, the department has been operating without a Senate-confirmed secretary or deputy secretary and also has numerous other high-level vacancies,” said Sen. Tom Carper,
D-Del., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Johnson is a 1979 graduate of Morehouse College and a 1982 graduate of Columbia Law School. After leaving the administration in 2012, he returned to private practice. According to a bio on the website of his law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, his civil and criminal clients have included Citigroup, Salomon Smith Barney, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Gillette.
Johnson earned more than $2.6 million from his partnership income at that law firm, according to 2009 government financial disclosure documents. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Johnson donated more than $33,000 to Obama’s campaign, federal records show. He was also a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton, contributing $2,300 to her presidential primary campaign in July 2008.