Leadership

Republicans criticize DHS nominee

US Capitol

The nomination of former Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security brought mixed reactions from Congress that broke down along party lines, perhaps presaging a difficult confirmation battle.

Some leading Republican senators seized on Johnson's financial relationships with President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, saying the nomination had more to do with fundraiser favoritism than job abilities.

"I have grave concerns with Jeh Johnson's nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security. After this administration's mismanagement of DHS, in particular its failure to secure the border, Texans expect a nominee with serious management and law enforcement experience," said Texas Republican John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

"Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers. We need someone who knows how to secure the border, not dial for dollars," said Cornyn.

The Opensecrets.org website says that in 2008 Johnson gave more than $93,000 in contributions to Democrats and was part of Obama's transition team. The website also lists Johnson as a Democratic "bundler" -- a contributor who raises money from friends and associates to deliver to the candidate.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called DHS "the most mismanaged department in the federal government" and said Johnson's nomination was more a reward for a top campaign donor than an effective choice to run the department.

"It would appear that the president plans to nominate a loyalist and fundraiser to this post. This is deeply concerning. This huge department must have a proven manager with strong relevant law enforcement experience, recognized independence and integrity, who can restore this department to its full capability," said Sessions.

Johnson has faced off with other Republican lawmakers over homeland security issues in the past.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), formerly chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, tangled with Johnson over a CIA leak case.

John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, was sentenced last January to 30 months in prison for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by passing along classified information on CIA operatives to a newspaper reporter.

In 2012, Johnson refused King's request to identify Defense Department lawyers—who were charged with defending Guantanamo detainees --who had allegedly disclosed identities of the same CIA operatives to the press and detainees through sloppily-handled case files.

Current House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said his concerns about depleted management ranks at the agency were only partially allayed by the nomination.

"[I] look forward to hearing Mr. Johnson's vision for improving the department's operations, morale and creating a more unified agency," McCaul said.

Currently, Rand Beers is acting secretary at DHS and Rafael Borras is acting deputy secretary.

"Even with this prospective nominee, over 40 percent of senior leadership positions at DHS are either vacant or have an 'acting' placeholder," said McCaul. "The lack of leadership at the White House is reflected in the holes in leadership at the department, and these important positions must be filled in order to fill the holes in our homeland security."

Democrats were predictably more sanguine about the nominee.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Johnson's arrival would help fill the depleted ranks of top managers at DHS, which has been under pressure to fill multiple vacant leadership posts.

"This nomination comes at a critical time for the agency and its mission because, for the past several months, the department has been operating without a Senate-confirmed secretary or deputy secretary, and also has numerous other high-level vacancies," Carper said. "Mr. Johnson brings a wealth of experience from the Department of Defense, and I am eager to meet with him and discuss his vision for the Department of Homeland Security. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Committee to consider his nomination in a thorough and timely manner."

In an Oct. 18 White House event unveiling the nomination, President Barack Obama called Johnson a "team player" and "cool, calm leader" who understood the threats facing the U.S. and how to handle them, as well as protect civil liberties.

If confirmed, Johnson would oversee one of the most complex and sprawling agencies in the government, with 240,000 employees spread across 22 agencies that work in areas from antiterrorism to recovery from natural disasters.

Johnson was appointed Pentagon general counsel on Feb. 10, 2009. In that capacity, he served as the chief legal DOD and the legal adviser to the secretary of Defense.

He spearheaded reforms to the military commissions system that were adopted by Congress in 2009 and also co-authored the report that paved the way for the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 2010. He also was one of the legal architects of the U.S. military's counterterrorism policies.

Johnson stepped down in December 2012 to return to private practice. He is currently a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in Washington.

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