WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday nominated a former Defense Department lawyer, Jeh Johnson, to be the next secretary of Homeland Security. Johnson played a major role in explaining Obama administration legal justifications on the use of unmanned drones and lethal targeted strikes, and U.S. detention policies.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Johnson would become only the fourth Homeland Security secretary, replacing Janet Napolitano, who led the department through Obama's first term.
Created after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, the department has a $60-billion budget, and 240,000 employees.
It handles everything from emergency management, immigration and customs and border control, and transportation security to the U.S. Secret Service and Coast Guard.
In his role at the Pentagon, Johnson was responsible for reviewing the legal grounds for military operations approved by the president and the defense secretary.
In announcing the nomination, Obama paid tribute to Johnson's role in national security, and in ensuring that U.S. principles are upheld in the fight against terrorism.
"Jeh has a deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States. As the Pentagon's top lawyer, he helped design and implement many of the policies that kept our country safe, including our success in dismantling the core of al-Qaida in the [Pakistani tribal region] FATA," said Obama. "When, I directed my national security team to be more open and transparent about how our policies work and how we make decisions, especially when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks, Jeh was one of the leaders who spoke eloquently about how we meet today's threats in a way that are consistent with our values, including the rule of law."
Johnson thanked the president for placing trust in him to carry out a "large and important responsibility."
Johnson recalled that he was in New York City in 2001 when al-Qaida terrorists crashed commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center towers.
"When that bright and beautiful day, a day something like this, was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history, I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered and asked, 'what can I do?' Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question," said Johnson.
Johnson's involvement in decisions on the use of unmanned drones, targeted killings of terrorist suspects, and on detention policy, means he is likely to face some heavy questioning from U.S. lawmakers at his confirmation hearing.
His past remarks provided an almost exact template for what Obama would say about the war against terrorists, including the president's insistence that a war against an "unconventional" enemy not be fought at the expense of America's laws and principles.
Speaking at Britain's Oxford University in 2012, Johnson said, "President Obama, himself a lawyer and a good one, has insisted that our efforts in pursuit of this unconventional enemy stay firmly rooted in conventional legal principles. For in our efforts to dismantle and destroy al-Qaida, we cannot dismantle our laws and our values, too."
Johnson also spoke about Obama's ban on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, and described the system of military commissions as "more credible, sustainable and transparent."
Obama recognized another major role Johnson had, guiding a report that led to the repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy that had barred gay Americans from serving openly in the military.
If confirmed, Johnson will become the first African-American Homeland Security secretary. Johnson has pledged to devote all his "energy, focus and ability" to safeguarding the nation's security.