WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Friday nominated the Pentagon's former top lawyer to help craft the nation's counterterrorism policy as secretary of homeland security, 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. Johnson is now a lawyer in a private firm.
Obama said he was nominating Johnson because of his "deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States." He credited Johnson with helping design and implement policies to dismantle the core of the al-Qaida terror organization overseas and to repeal the ban on openly gay service members in the military.
Jeh Johnson, President Barack Obama’s choice for the next Homeland Security secretary, watches in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.
"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 on a crisp and sunny fall afternoon.
Napolitano, who came to the Homeland Security Department after serving as governor of Arizona, made clear that her top priority was immigration reform, and she routinely championed the issue in congressional testimony. In contrast, 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 of the use of unmanned drone strikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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.
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.