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Jeh C. Johnson, New DHS Secretary Nominee, Awaits Senate Confirmation

Former Pentagon official Jeh C. Johnson is President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the White House announced on Oct. 18.

Johnson, 56, is not well known in Washington. He brings solid experience as general counsel for the Pentagon during Obama’s first term in office. He functioned quietly as a key legal architect of the administration’s counterterrorism policy. He provided legal guidance in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in targeted killing of terrorist leaders and in the use of military commissions, rather than civilian courts, to try suspects. Johnson, whose first name is pronounced Jay, is also a former fundraiser for the president’s election campaigns.

“He’s been there in the Situation Room, at the table in moments of decision,” Obama said as he announced the nomination from the Rose Garden.

Obama spoke of Johnson’s “deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States.” He cited Johnson’s help in shaping policies to combat al Qaeda overseas and to repeal the ban on openly gay service members in the U.S. military. “He’s been there in the Situation Room, at the table in moments of decision,” Obama said as he announced the nomination from the Rose Garden.

 

Filling Slots – Maybe

Johnson would be the fourth leader of DHS and would replace Janet Napolitano, who was called “indispensable” by Obama even though fully three months elapsed between Napolitano’s July 12 announcement of her departure and the naming of Johnson as her successor. The administration is filling another long-vacant DHS position by naming Stevan E. Bunnell as the department’s general counsel. Bunnell, a Washington lawyer, once worked at the Justice Department, where he prosecuted former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif). Johnson and Bunnell both grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Johnson’s resumé shows no experience managing a large organization. The 10-year-old DHS is the third largest cabinet department (behind Defense and Veterans Affairs), with 200,000 personnel who work on an extraordinary range of issues from immigration to airport screening. The department was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, by consolidating 22 executive branch agencies, including Customs, Coast Guard, Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It became responsible for the newly created Transportation Security Administration.

Jeh C. Johnson

Jeh C. Johson has been nominated by the president as the next DHS Secretary, but may face a fight on Capitol Hill. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The department would be expected to take the lead in the government’s response to the next 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Yet as Rich Cooper reported in this space on Oct. 4, for too long “acting” placeholders rather than permanently assigned officials have occupied key DHS positions, and morale has been in a slump.

Amid the tumult in government in Washington today, it is fair to ask whether DHS nominee Johnson – or, for that matter, any nominee put forth by the administration – can enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate.

A source tells Defense Media Network the administration was considering New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for the top DHS job, partly because Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged it publicly last July. Crime rates have come down since Kelly became NYPD boss in 1992 – they have dropped in other jurisdictions and nationally, as well – but Kelly’s robust “stop and frisk” policy has made him a target of civil libertarians, some of whom view the policy as racist.

Amid the tumult in government in Washington today, it is fair to ask whether DHS nominee Johnson – or, for that matter, any nominee put forth by the administration – can enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate. Senators are increasingly using the once-rare practice of putting a hold on a nomination to make a political point. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) on Oct. 16 blocked the nomination of Tom Wheeler to become Federal Communications Commission Chairman because Cruz opposes increased public disclosure of the source of funding for political ads on television. A hold of this kind is usually temporary, but can sometimes result in a nominee asking to withdraw.

Any delay with the DHS appointment would be especially difficult, because of the 18 positions in the department that require Senate confirmation, seven are filled by an “acting” incumbent.

 

Stalled in the Senate

The July nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be deputy secretary – the number two slot at DHS – is stalled because of an inspector general’s investigation. Mayorkas denies allegations he intervened inappropriately to enable an electric car company to receive U.S. EB-5 visas for investors. The August nomination of Gil Kerlikowske to head DHS’s Customs and Border Protection also awaits Senate action.

Supporters argue that Johnson’s critics are simply afraid he may support immigration reform, which is a long acknowledged goal of the administration.

As real as it is, the need to fill vacancies at DHS doesn’t mean Johnson will have an easy route to the job he’s been named to. The DHS is “the most mismanaged [department] in government,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) in a statement. “Enforcement has collapsed, office morale has plummeted, and the integrity of the entire immigration legal system is in jeopardy,” Sessions added. Pointing to Johnson’s background as a fundraiser, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex) said in a statement: “We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.” Although conservative, Cornyn faces a primary re-election challenge from the right in his border state and has hinted he might block the Johnson appointment.

Supporters argue that Johnson’s critics are simply afraid he may support immigration reform, which is a long acknowledged goal of the administration.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...