Homeland Security choice suggests priority shift

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday nominated the Pentagon's former top lawyer to help craft the nation's counterterrorism policy as Homeland Security secretary, suggesting a shift from the department's emphasis on immigration and border issues to a greater focus on security against possible attacks.

If confirmed by the Senate -- and no organized opposition has been indicated -- Jeh C. Johnson would replace Janet Napolitano, who left her post last month to become president of the University of California system. Mr. Johnson, whose first name is pronounced "Jay," is now a lawyer in a private firm.

Mr. Obama said he was nominating Mr. Johnson because of his "deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States." The president credited him with helping to design and implement policies to dismantle the core of the al-Qaida terror organization overseas and repeal the ban on openly gay U.S. military service members.

"He's been there in the Situation Room, at the table in moments of decision," Mr. Obama said as he announced the nomination from the Rose Garden on a crisp and sunny fall afternoon.

Ms. Napolitano, who came to the Homeland Security Department after serving as governor of Arizona, made clear that her top priority was immigration overhaul, and she routinely championed the issue in congressional testimony. In contrast, Mr. Johnson has spent most of his career dealing with national security issues as a top military lawyer. Issues he has handled include changing military commissions to try some terrorism suspects, rather than using civilian courts, and overseeing the escalation in use of unmanned drone strikes during the Iraq and Afghan wars.

The Homeland Security Department was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which Mr. Johnson said occurred on his birthday. He noted that he was in Manhattan on that fateful day when the World Trade Center in New York was struck, and he said he was motivated to do something to help the country in response. But he left government service in 2012 and said he was settling back into private life and work at a law firm.

"I was not looking for this opportunity," Mr. Johnson said. "But when I received the call, I could not refuse it."

Mr. Johnson, a multimillionaire lawyer outside of government, has defended the administration's targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas as well as the U.S. spy court role and efforts to keep government secrets.

If confirmed, 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, deciding which immigrants living in the United States illegally to deport and directing how to protect passenger jets from would-be terrorists.

Mr. 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 is an area with which he has little experience.

Mr. Johnson has made clear his support for using drone strikes to kill enemy combatants, including U.S. citizens overseas. He has also said 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 lead law enforcement agency in domestic terror cases. It includes Customs and Border Protection, whose primary mission is preventing terrorists from entering the country. DHS also has a presence on FBI-led joint terrorism task forces around the nation, with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Secret Service.

Mr. 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, Mr. Johnson would take over an agency with numerous high-level vacancies, including deputy secretary. When Ms. Napolitano left to become University of California president in September, one-third of the heads of key agencies and divisions were filled with acting officials or had been vacant for months. Mr. Obama has nominated several people to key posts, 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.

Mr. Johnson is a 1979 Morehouse College graduate and a 1982 Columbia Law School graduate. Upon leaving the administration in 2012, he practiced with the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison law firm, where his civil and criminal clients have included Citigroup, Salomon Smith Barney, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Gillette.

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First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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