Many Washington pundits were surprised when Jeh Johnson was tapped to head the Homeland Security Department. After all, the former Pentagon general counsel has little direct management experience or expertise dealing with some of the sprawling department's key missions, including immigration. And his name was virtually absent amid earlier speculation about who would fill the high-profile post after Janet Napolitano left for the West Coast.
But several former senior officials who worked with him say the president's choice has not shocked them. When it was officially announced Friday, Johnson, a New Yorker who was in Manhattan during the terror attacks of Sept. 11 — coincidentally, his birthday — recounted how he wandered the streets that day, asking, "What can I do?"
It was clear at the Rose Garden as he stood alongside President Obama how far Johnson has come. "It's not surprising to me at all he would be picked for a Cabinet position," said Bob Work, the Center for a New American Security CEO, who until recently was undersecretary of the Navy.
DHS is a particularly good fit for Johnson, Work says, because virtually every issue has some legal component, from border security to cybersecurity, and every sitting DHS chief from Tom Ridge to Michael Chertoff to Napolitano has also been a lawyer. And his role navigating the bureaucracy of the Defense Department, where he was responsible for the legal work of more than 10,000 military and civilian lawyers, is "exactly what he'll be faced with" at DHS, which contains 22 federal agencies or departments, according to Work.
Johnson's perspective on national security issues is "broader than just what he did as general counsel," said Phillip Carter, who formerly led the Pentagon's detainee policy. "Jeh sees the world in a similar way to the president." Just look at his résumé from his time as general counsel until 2012: He spearheaded an internal review to lift the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay military troops; defended the administration's policy of overseas drone strikes targeting those deemed enemy combatants; and was involved in discussions about the administration's attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. And Johnson has spoken out against accepting the idea of war as "the new normal."
Johnson, who has also worked on Obama's presidential campaign, has a track record of navigating sometimes tricky presidential priorities, such as lifting the ban on openly gay military service in 2011. "You cannot imagine a more emotionally charged issue than that," Work said. Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham broke down concerns of various stakeholders in all the services. They "took what could have been a very divisive proposal and worked through it in a very pragmatic and reasonable fashion," Work said. "Everyone in the end said "¦ "˜We can move forward with relatively little risk.' " Johnson's personality also wins him plaudits. "I never saw him lose his temper or raise his voice; I never heard him say a bad word to anyone. This is in the middle of some extremely contentious and difficult negotiations."
Michele Flournoy, who served as Defense undersecretary until last year, says she and Johnson worked like "hand and glove" at the Pentagon, where Johnson often spoke up about potential legal issues with policy decisions — but asked for time to investigate the solutions "rather than jumping to conclusions or coming in guns a-blazing before he really knew all the facts," she said. "Given the complexities of DHS, that's the kind of person you want: Someone who's got an open mind but who's also got the integrity to take a stand when someone has to take a stand on an issue."
Johnson was known for his unusually strong relationship with Congress. "He understood the nexus of politics and strategy, and how we needed to work with Congress, whether to get funding for a particular initiative or whether to get authorization for a new facility in Afghanistan," Carter said. "At DHS, where everything is political in large part because everything is domestic, that will be incredibly valuable." Johnson had a broad network across the interagency, of not just lawyers but policy officials, which extended to aides and members on Capitol Hill. "Often he came back to the Pentagon with information from those discussions, which was incredibly valuable for steering policy," Carter said. It's rare, he added, for a counsel — even a Defense secretary — to have that level of congressional engagement.
Johnson is known for breaking down barriers within the Defense Department, even during his previous posts, such as when he was general counsel to the Air Force during the Clinton administration. Former Air Force Secretary Whit Peters described an "unhealthy competition" at that time between the counsel's office and judge advocate general's office — which Johnson resolved in large part because he took the time to listen to people. "You'd be surprised at how many people who come into the executive branch don't do that," Peters said. "His job is to persuade people to do things he thinks should be done. That was his role really as general counsel, and as my chief legal adviser. He's very good at it. That's probably the most important skill to have at [DHS], because it covers such a wide range of activities."
Johnson, 56, who is married with two children, also served as assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. In between stints in public service, he was a lawyer; he is currently a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.