Jeh Johnson Would Bring Powers of Persuasion to DHS Job

Jeh Johnson looks on as President Obama introduces him as his nominee to be the next Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Rose Garden of the White House, October 18, 2013.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Oct. 21, 2013, 2:50 p.m.

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.

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