President Barack Obama, (R) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, (L) look on as Jeh Johnson (C) the president's nominee to be the next Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, finishes his remarks in the Rose Garden of the White House, October 18, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/getty

Obama picks Johnson to head Homeland Security

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As general counsel for the Pentagon, Jeh Johnson was involved in internal Obama administration disputes over the legal limits of the fight against terrorist groups. In public, Johnson forcefully defended the use of targeted killing in the battle against al Qaeda, but he also contemplated what the end of that war would look like. He oversaw the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, urged Congress not to pass a new authorization to use military force against al Qaeda, and supervised the Gitmo military commissions. 

Few of those things will prepare him for managing the Department of Homeland Security.

“DHS is a very large, very diverse department that has a number of critical responsibilities that if they’re executed perfectly no one will ever notice,” says David C. Maurer, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the Government Accountability Office. “Some of the components within DHS are larger than other departments within the US government.”

Although preventing terrorism is the most high profile of DHS’ missions, it shares that responsibility with many other government agencies. On the other hand, DHS is responsible for implementing immigration policy, responding to natural disasters, and ensuring that Americans are secure when they travel. DHS, which was created in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks, was made by merging 22 federal agencies and now includes entities as diverse as the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Overseeing that sprawling federal bureaucracy will be a very different job than the one Johnson had at the Pentagon.

“I think it’s a stretch because you go from administering a relatively small and homogenous staff… to administering a huge and very diverse staff, with things like law enforcement responsibility, immigration and border control responsibility,” says one former Obama Justice department official who worked with Johnson. “It’s just a very diverse set of issues and set of people to manage, and he has no experience with managing any of them.”

Other current and former administration officials said Johnson, who would be the third black member of Obama’s cabinet, had been a strong manager at the Department of Defense. They noted that in his role as general counsel, Johnson had to work frequently with other agencies, a likely asset in overseeing the many government entities under DHS’ umbrella. Though his counterterrorism responsibilities at the Department of Homeland Security would be different from the ones he had at the Pentagon, his supporters say his national security experience makes him a wise pick.

“Running DHS involves an intimacy and comfort level with managing threat, navigating the interagency process, and running a large sprawling organization that does national security for a living,” says Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There are relatively few people who have more recent experience with this sort of endeavor than does Jeh.”

Still, managing DHS would be a challenge for anyone. Maurer says that the department has only just begun to keep adequate financial books. Several big DHS projects have been expensive failures. Billions of dollars were spent on technology to secure the southern border and screen cargo containers for radioactive materials. In both cases, the tech just didn’t work.

Under former Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Maurer says, the agency made some progress, particularly in its accounting practices, and Johnson must ensure that continues. But DHS is also often a magnet for political controversy. For the past six years, Napolitano has had to navigate criticism from Republicans over supposedly being soft on illegal immigration, while also taking fire from the left over the Obama administration’s record-breaking numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants.

“Few of us know [Johnson], but those who do think highly of him. He seems to enjoy the confidence and ear of Obama, which is a good thing,” Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, told MSNBC.  ”Maybe Johnson will stand up to the rogue agents in ICE and CBP and do what the president says DHS should do, which instead of feeding their 400K a year deportation quota by targeting immigrants who would be eligible for legalization under immigration reform, would focus on criminal and security threats.” Johnson has not dealt with immigration issues before.  

Taking fire from right and left on the other hand, is something Johnson has a lot of experience with. From drone strikes to military commissions, Johnson has publicly defended policies under harshly criticism from both sides. He weathered a controversy over suggesting that Martin Luther King Jr., a harsh critic of the war in Vietnam and a believer in non-violence, would have supported the war in Afghanistan.

Johnson also helped raise money for Obama’s 2008 election campaign, something Republicans are already using to bash him. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn released a statement Friday saying, “We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars.”

The open secret about being DHS secretary however, is that almost no one has the necessary skill set. “There’s no one in existence who has worked at a high level in all those areas, unless you’re a former DHS secretary,” says Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for the National Security Council under Obama. “What it requires is a good leader and a strong manager, and I saw Johnson perform those roles at the Pentagon very well.”

Immigration Policy and War On Terror

Obama picks Johnson to head Homeland Security

Updated