Public Safety & Homeland Security

Former Pentagon Lawyer Said to be Choice to Head Homeland Security

Jeh Johnson will be nominated by President Obama as DHS secretary, say administration officials.

by Brian Bennett / October 18, 2013

Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel who established the legal frameworks for lethal drone strikes and for allowing gays to serve openly in the military, will be nominated by President Barack Obama as secretary of Homeland Security, according to administration officials.

Johnson, 56, was an early supporter of Obama's presidential ambitions and an adviser to his campaign. He contributed more than $33,000 in 2008 to Obama's fundraising committees.

Johnson, who is African American, would join two other black members of the president's Cabinet, Attorney General  Eric H. Holder Jr. and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Holder is not expected to stay at the Justice Department through Obama's second term, and Johnson's confirmation might make it politically easier for Holder to leave.

As general counsel at the Defense Department, Johnson managed more than 10,000 lawyers from 2009 to 2012 before returning to work at the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison..

Obama is expected to make the announcement Friday at the White House. Johnson would succeed Janet Napolitano, who left in September to become president of the University of California system.

If confirmed in the new post, Johnson would face the gargantuan task of managing 240,000 employees in a department that was cobbled together after Sept. 11, 2001, from 22 disparate agencies with distinct cultures and histories.

Despite some success by previous secretaries at knitting together the huge department, Homeland Security has been repeatedly criticized by its inspector general for weak management and patterns of wasteful spending.

Jeh+JohnsonBy nominating Johnson, Obama is elevating a person who was intimately involved in making decisions about the targeted killings of suspected al-Qaida members. Johnson made legal determinations on purported terrorists that the military planned to kill,  according to former U.S. officials.

His nomination could put pressure on the White House to shed more light on the secret program. When the Senate considered John Brennan's nomination for CIA director in March, members of Congress demanded that Obama reveal how the administration made its decisions on whom to kill.

In internal policy dogfights over the targeted-killing policy, Johnson argued strongly for a more expansive view of who could be considered a target, officials said. He has said publicly that the U.S. should no longer consider itself in a traditional armed conflict against al-Qaida and that Congress should consider what new authorities American counterterrorism operations might need.

"We're not just talking about drone strikes. We're talking about ability to conduct national security interrogations, pre-Miranda, and other types of things that domestic law enforcement, that the intelligence community, should have to go forward with the future threats," Johnson said in a panel at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

Johnson also acknowledged during the panel that being involved in life-and-death decisions at the Pentagon weighed on him.

"Anytime I or any other national security official has to sign off on something that leads to lethal force, that should leave you with a heavy heart. Period. Irrespective of who the objective is," Johnson said.

The White House also considered nominating New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, and Lisa Monaco, Obama's homeland security aide on the National Security Council.

This article was originally published by the Tribune Washington Bureau. Christi Parsons, David S. Cloud and Becca Clemons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.