Jeh Johnson: The Next Secretary of Homeland Security?

  • photo courtesy of wikipedia
    Oct 18, 2013

    On Friday, October 18, President Obama will announce the nomination of Jeh Johnson, a distinguished trial attorney and Partner at the Washington, DC-based law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP, to the position of Secretary of Homeland Security. Johnson has served as General Counsel for the Department of Defense (2009-2012), General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force (1998-2001), and an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District (1989-1991). Active in Democratic politics, he served as special counsel to Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and was an early supporter of President Obama’s first presidential campaign.

    If confirmed by the Senate as the Secretary of Homeland Security, Johnson would lead the federal government’s third largest department at a time when homeland security threats and priorities – ranging from border protection to cyber security to federal emergency management – may be shifting.

    Q1: What experience would Johnson bring to DHS?

    A1: Over the course of his career, Johnson has developed significant experience in providing legal and policy guidance on complex, difficult issues, from civil and criminal cases to the highest level of national security issues. In his most recent public service role as the Defense Department’s General Counsel, Johnson served as the military’s chief advisor on legal issues. Thus, he was responsible for reviewing the legality of military operations and leading legal reviews of several other significant national security issues, such as the feasibility of trying terrorist suspects using military tribunals, the future of detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and potential effects of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Johnson also oversaw the legal review of U.S. military’s counterterrorism operations, including its use of armed drones and its targeted killing program. This background in exploring a variety of sensitive, complicated issues may have prepared him well for difficult policy questions facing the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, given Johnson’s dedication to the President’s campaigns, he would certainly have close relationships with and access to key White House officials and, of course, the President himself.

    On the other hand, some have expressed concern that Johnson may lack the management experience necessary to effectively oversee the Department of Homeland Security. With 240,000 employees spread across 22 separate agencies that each has a distinct mission, the Department represents an enduring management challenge. Coordinating and guiding these agencies can be difficult at the best of times, but with the strain of continued budget cuts, a strong hand leading the Department will become all the more important. Reflecting this emphasis on experienced management leadership (including both budget and personnel expertise), two of the Department’s previous secretaries – Janet Napolitano and Tom Ridge – have been former governors. That said, former Secretary Michael Chertoff shared a similar legal background with Johnson.

    Q2: What DHS missions would Johnson likely focus on as Secretary?

    A2: While Secretaries of Homeland Security have focused significant attention and resources on the threat of al Qaeda-associated terrorism since the Department’s creation in 2002, they have always had to balance this important mission with the Department’s other responsibilities, including responding to natural and manmade disasters, securing the nation’s borders, and decreasing vulnerability to cyber-attacks. If confirmed as Secretary, Johnson may seek to rebalance the Department’s priorities, potentially shifting emphasis towards these other responsibilities. In a November 2012 speech, Johnson argued that the United States is on course to a “tipping point” at which al Qaeda has been so degraded that it is “no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States…” Johnson stated, “We must not accept the current conflict [against al Qaeda], and all that it entails, as the ‘new normal.’” Such remarks may indicate a willingness to refocus the Department of Homeland Security’s attention and resources on threats beyond al Qaeda and terrorism.

    At the same time, Johnson’s background as a lawyer may dispose him towards specific homeland security missions, particularly those with a significant law enforcement component. Thus, Johnson might choose to focus on the activities of Homeland Security agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Coast Guard. An emphasis on these agencies, which are frequently involved in combating human-, narco-, and other trafficking and other illicit activities, could be especially valuable in light of recent Congressional action on immigration and border security reform.

    Q3: How likely is the Senate to confirm Johnson?

    A3: Administration officials reportedly believe that Johnson is likely to be confirmed relatively easily. In his role as the Defense Department General Counsel, Johnson worked closely with Congress on a range of politically sensitive issues and reportedly built strong relationships with a number of Senators. By appearances, he has also avoided becoming embroiled in any major public controversies or scandals that could endanger his confirmation.

    However, there is the possibility that some civil libertarians in the Senate may question Johnson’s suitability. As the Defense Department General Counsel at a time when the rate of U.S. targeted killings increased dramatically, Johnson was responsible for providing the legal rationale for the military’s element of this program. Further, after leaving the Pentagon, he has continued to defend the program, including the killing of U.S. citizens fighting overseas as part of al Qaeda. While he has argued for greater transparency regarding how and why these strikes are carried out, his support for targeted killings could draw the ire of Senate libertarians. However, if John Brennan’s confirmation, which was briefly but unsuccessfully filibustered over the same issue, is any indication, Johnson appears likely to win confirmation as the next Secretary of Homeland Security.

    Stephanie Kostro is Acting Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program. Rob Wise is a Research Assistant and Program Coordinator with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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