October 18, 2013 by Rich Cooper
If you’re a member of the DHS alumni, or you’re still at the Department or you’re even just a casual homeland security watcher, you may have received an e-mail on Thursday afternoon with the subject line, “Who is Jeh Johnson?”
With the White House leaking the word to the Daily Beast and later confirming that the President has selected Jeh Johnson, the former General Counsel at the Pentagon in the first term of the Obama Administration, to replace Janet Napolitano as DHS Secretary, the months-long odyssey of filling the toughest job in Washington is almost over. All that has to happen now is for him to pass through the often-laborious and contentious confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. That’s not the easiest of feats, but the fact that the White House has finally found someone is a relief to a lot of people. But that doesn’t answer the “Who” question.
I was part of that large chorus of people asking, “Who?” Jeh Johnson wasn’t on my prospective list of potential DHS Secretaries. In fact, I can’t find him on anyone’s list of potential DHS Secretary candidates. That’s not a bad thing. An out of the blue candidate like this may be what the Department needs at this point in its history. Many of us were hoping the White House would reach out to retired USCG Commandant Thad Allen for the job. He would have been the fastest slam dunk for the job, but the White House went outside the conventional and obvious candidates and chose Johnson for reasons only they know or care about.
I find the Johnson’s nomination to be fascinating. Based upon his background, this is not a person who has played it safe when it comes to dealing with tough issues. Most people in Washington looking to advance their careers inside the Beltway look to tread lightly to avoid controversy and not be labeled with one thing or another that might trip up their pursuit up the proverbial ladder of success. That is not Johnson. In fact, if you look at the issues he’s been involved with – enemy combatant detainee issues; gays in the military; counterterrorism strikes and drone usage; cyber security, etc. – it would seem there hasn’t been a problematic or controversial national security issue that he’s not been involved with in some shape or form over the past five years. It could be argued that he’s been at the discussion table on all of them and been a big part of the analysis and debate. That’s a pretty good basis to start with for the DHS job.
But the decisions that he was part of at the Pentagon will be far different from those at DHS. He will have far more diverse and independent players in the form of other federal, state, local and tribal governments, as well as private sector players who do not have to salute and follow orders as dictated by Pentagon brass.
But he has built a notable record that will offer of plenty of fodder for tough questions and debate. (Can you imagine what questions on domestic drone usage Sen. Rand Paul might send to him or how New York Senator Chuck Schumer might query him on terrorism trials in New York City through the Senate’s Government Affairs & Homeland Security Committee?)
In addition to being the fourth head of DHS, he will also be the fourth consecutive federal prosecutor that has served in the top seat at the Department. That’s not a statutory requirement for the job, but it seems to be part of the defacto criteria list that both the Bush and Obama Administrations have used for selecting DHS Secretaries.
In responding to several calls and e-mails about the news of his selection, my friend and fellow contributor David Olive noted that he had seen Johnson this past summer at the Aspen Institute’s annual Security Forum. Olive came away very impressed. “That guy could debate anyone!” he told me. Judge for yourself; here’s the video. Additionally, Johnson made a recent appearance on Charlie Rose’s show.
Again, while Johnson may not be familiar to the homeland crowd, he’s no slouch and certainly can’t be written off as some political hack. While he certainly has worn his personal and professional loyalty to the President proudly on his sleeve, he shows tremendous depth on national security and that can only help the Department in its quest to firmly establish its place at the national security table.
The job Johnson might inherit, however, is probably now an even worse position to hold than it was when Napolitano left it a month and a half ago. Why? First off, for a Department that is already at the bottom of the barrel in the morale department, the past sixteen days of the government shutdown have done nothing to move the morale needle in a positive direction. Like a lot of the federal workforce, the members of the DHS team have been treated like crap, but DHS’ personnel have sadly been treated like mega-crap by internal and external forces for some time. The ongoing dysfunction of the Congress and the Administration did not improve that.
The White House taking nearly two months to name a replacement doesn’t help either.
Additionally, Johnson walks into the DHS dugout with a virtually non-existent bench of talent. Depending on whose list you consult, there are either 18 or 22 executive spots that are vacant and have “Acting” personnel keeping the seat warm and the inbox full. And that’s just the first layer of leadership. The open and “Acting” spots go down several layers, and needless to say there aren’t a lot of people clamoring to join DHS or federal service given the recent furloughs. He’s going to have rebuild the team with fresh leadership and talent, and that’s not going to be easy at the latter half of a term limited Administration.
Johnson’s nomination is indeed a surprise. It reminds me a lot of when Michael Chertoff was nominated following the collapse of the Bernard Kerik nomination to succeed Tom Ridge. Chertoff wasn’t an immediately obvious choice either, but his background proved to be the right fit at the right time and the Department was all the better for it. My hope for Johnson is that he is indeed a similar fit for the Department.
I also hope that he has a quick but thorough confirmation hearing that lets us hear his thoughts on issues that deserve open and public discussion. We’ve all gotten smarter about what is and what is not homeland security, and as a result, we’re all a lot safer for those lessons learned along the way. When Johnson starts to answer those questions and acts upon them is when we will all realize exactly “who” he is.