By ALICIA A. CALDWELL, Associated Press
President Barack Obama’s nominee to run the sprawling Homeland Security Department has been lauded as a forceful counterterrorism thinker on what he has described as the “hot battlefield” overseas. Now Jeh C. Johnson will be turning his gaze more toward American soil.
Johnson, who pronounces his first name “Jay,” is a multimillionaire former Pentagon lawyer who has defended the administration’s targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas as well as the role of the U.S. spy court and crackdowns to keep government secrets.
If confirmed by the Senate, he would manage a department with more than 20 different agencies, a budget of more than $45 billion and a staff of hundreds of thousands of civilian, law enforcement and military personnel. On any given day, the job includes making decisions about disaster relief, distribution of a shrinking grants budget, which immigrants living in the United States illegally to deport and how to protect passenger jets from would-be terrorists.
Johnson, a one-time assistant U.S. attorney in New York, would inherit a department whose public face in recent years has been associated with immigration. But that’s an area he has little experience with, so his nomination could suggest the agency will move more to a focus on protecting the homeland from attack.
Matt Fishbein, who worked with Johnson in a private law firm in the early 1980s and served on a New York City bar panel while the nominee was chairman in the late ‘90s, says Johnson is a good choice.
“Ultimately, he’s responsible for security in this age of terrorism,” said Fishbein, a Debevoise & Plimpton law firm partner in New York. “I imagine that means every single day coming across his desk is going to be very scary information that he’s going to have to sort out and see if there’s a basis for it. You need to secure and protect the country while not overstepping the bounds, violating civil liberties. It’s a tough job.”
Johnson has made clear his support for using done strikes to kill enemy combatants, including U.S. citizens overseas. He has also said that he considers “lone wolf” terrorists to be a law enforcement problem, not enemy combatants who should be targeted in military strikes.
Homeland Security is almost never the lead law enforcement agency in domestic terror cases. It includes Customs and Border Protection, whose primary mission is preventing terrorists from coming into the country. DHS also has a presence on the FBI-led joint terrorism task forces around the country, with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service.
Johnson’s experience in dealing with overseas actions and counterterror decisions may also be helpful for a department still trying to define its role in the fight against terrorism. Homeland Security has a growing footprint around the world.
If confirmed, Johnson would take over an agency with numerous high-level vacancies, including the deputy secretary. When Janet Napolitano left to take over as president of the University of California in September, 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.
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 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 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, having contributed $2,300 to her presidential primary campaign in July 2008. He’s also given $5,000 to the New Jersey Democratic Party and $1,000 to Democrats nationwide, as well as to several congressional candidates.
Obama’s campaign website listed Johnson as a member of the then-candidate’s national finance committee and an adviser to Obama’s foreign policy team during the 2008 election.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Lolita C. Baldor and Jack Gillum in Washington and Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap