October 18, 2013 by David Olive

The anticipated nomination of Jeh Johnson to become the fourth Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is welcomed news almost any way you look at it. Not only does it show that the White House has not forgotten about the Department, it sends a number of very interesting messages that run counter to that Washington demon called “conventional wisdom,” including that advanced in some of the sage writings of well-intentioned, yet uninformed bloggers (such as yours truly.)

Johnson’s prodigious resume and professional history is being chronicled by the homeland security, defense and legal establishment writers and will fill the broadcast airwaves, print and social/internet media outlets. Most of those stories will focus on Johnson’s past experience at the Pentagon with a heavy emphasis on his thoughts on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver military ordinance in foreign countries – equipment which will be derisively referred to as “drones.”

While “drones” may be interesting to the press (and certain Senators on the committee who will review his nomination – can you say “Rand Paul?”), the use of unmanned vehicles by DHS is a minor part of what Johnson will be dealing with if he is confirmed. Maybe the subject isn’t completely irrelevant, but it would not be the first, second or third topic I want to know about should he take the helm at DHS.

Rather, I think the five most pressing issues he ought to address in his confirmation hearing, as well as his tenure as Secretary (should that occur), are:

1 – Addressing immigration reform and enforcement;
2 – Improving department-wide morale;
3 – Clarifying the role of DHS in all things cyber;
4 – Instilling transparency, confidence and accountability in the acquisition and procurement processes; and
5 – Rebuilding the broken ties with the private sector, especially with those entities that own and control the nation’s critical infrastructure and economic engines.

Of course, there are a lot more issues that I want to know about, both for personal and professional reasons (pressing Congress for streamlined oversight, making S&T relevant for the DHS components, building stability in the workforce, to name a few). Yet, if Johnson could made those five the hallmark of his DHS administration, he would go a long way toward building a positive legacy that his grandchildren’s grandchildren would be proud to tell their friends about.

Johnson has many personal strengths to rely upon and a few gaps that he must address. Among the strengths of the department he hopes to inherit are components (such as TSA and FEMA) where he would do best to leave them alone. They are led by able, capable administrators who have them on the right course, in my opinion.

ICE and CBP need strong leadership, and Johnson should be able to work with CBP nominee Gil Kerlikowski and (if rumors are true) expected ICE nominee Stuart Delery, who is currently serving as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division at DOJ. He will have a greater challenge at USCIS should the current Administrator, Alejandro Mayorkas, make it through his own nomination fight to become Deputy DHS Secretary. Then there is the question of who will become the next U.S. Coast Guard Commandant when Admiral Bob Papp hangs up his uniform. Johnson should be most comfortable here, given his extensive DOD background, but the Coast Guard has a largely civilian mission and finding the right balance is always a challenge for them since resources are so constrained.

And the list goes on. There are vacancies that must be filled, missions to be performed, persistent threats to be anticipated and avoided. Johnson has a skeleton team in place now. He must insist that the White House fill those positions, and quickly.

He cannot succeed based upon his brilliant intellect and work ethic, as the equally brilliant Michael Chertoff found out when a couple of massive hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Brain power and willpower are essential, but they are not enough. It takes a distributed yet cohesive team approach for him to succeed, and Johnson would be well advised to avoid the top-down, politically driven management mindset of his predecessor.

DHS needs a strong, steady leader. Jeh Johnson may well just be that person. We won’t know for certain until he gets through a rigorous confirmation process and puts his nameplate on the Secretary’s desk at Nebraska Avenue. There are a few questions that must be addressed between now and then. But I’m optimistic about his selection and, truth be told, I suspect the vast majority of DHS employees are too.


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