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What leadership qualities would Jeh Johnson bring to Homeland Security?

October 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama nominated former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, tapped to succeed Janet Napolitano. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look at Johnson's career and challenges he could face with Daniel Klaidman of The Daily Beast and Charlie Savage of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a close look at the man tapped to keep the American homeland safe, borders secured, and the country prepared for natural disasters and other emergencies, Jeh Johnson.

President Obama walked to the Rose Garden to announce the nomination.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Jeh understands that this country is worth protecting not because of what we build or what we own, but because of who we are, and that’s what sets us apart.

We have to stay ready when disaster strikes and help Americans recover in the aftermath. We have got to fix our broken immigration system in a way that strengthens our borders and modernizes legal immigration and makes sure everybody is playing by the same rules.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An attorney in government and private practice, Jeh Johnson said he could not refuse this opportunity to serve once again.

JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security nominee: I am a New Yorker, and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday.

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When that bright and beautiful day was — 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Johnson served as general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton years. Then, in private life, he became a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, up through the Obama campaign, before returning to the Defense Department as its top lawyer during the president’s first term.

As general counsel, he helped shape many of the administration’s counterterrorism strategies, most notably its controversial use of drone strikes in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He also co-authored the Pentagon’s report on gays serving openly in the military that ushered in the repeal of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy in 2010.

Shortly before leaving government in December 2012, Johnson spoke of the need to fight terrorism without being on a perpetual wartime footing.

JEH JOHNSON: I do believe that, on the present course, there will come a tipping point, a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson will succeed Janet Napolitano. She stepped down in September to lead the University of California system.

Like his predecessors, Johnson will have his work cut out for him, taking the helm of a sprawling department, home to 22 agencies, and still grappling with growing pains more than a decade after it was created.

To tell us more about Jeh Johnson and the challenges that face the next head of the Department of Homeland Security, I’m joined by Daniel Klaidman, a correspondent for The Daily Beast, and Charlie Savage, a reporter for The New York Times.

Welcome to you both.

Dan Klaidman, I want to turn to you first.

It took a while for the administration to make this choice. Why did they go with him?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN, The Daily Beast: It did take them a while to go with Jeh Johnson, but my understanding is the president actually began to focus on him very early on, back in August, actually, and the administration was quite discreet about it. We didn’t learn about it until just yesterday, really.

I think they went with Jeh Johnson for a couple of reasons. I think the president’s top priority was finding someone who had really strong national security and counterterrorism credentials. Any president stays up at night worrying about the reality that there are people out there who are trying to attack America and kill innocent civilians here.

And so, in Jeh Johnson, I think he found someone who he believed shared his basic views about approaching how to approach national security and counterterrorism, that is to say, to aggressively defend the country, but to do it within a framework of law. And I think he found that comforting.

 

And, also, particularly in a second term, I think presidents often like to choose people who they have worked with, know well. Jeh Johnson was a — you know, someone who was well-known inside the White House, attended many meetings with the president. And so the president had the beneficiary of his judgment and advice, and I think he found that comforting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlie Savage, let me turn to you. On Johnson’s experience with these — with counterterrorism, with national security, what kinds of decisions was he involved with at the Pentagon, and how did he handle them, and why did that make him attractive at the White House?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, I think that one way to understand Jeh Johnson’s tenure as the top lawyer in the Pentagon in the first term of the Obama administration is that, in many debates, he was seeking on behalf of his client to preserve greater latitude and flexibility and options.

And so, when some voices in the administration were arguing for, as a legal matter, not a policy matter, less ability to carry out drone strikes against lower-level militants in places like Somalia, Jeh Johnson was the voice saying, no, Al-Shabab is a full affiliate of al-Qaida, it’s a cobelligerent in the war on terror, and we are at war with them. If the policy-makers choose, they can target lower-level militants in places like Somalia.

On the other hand, in the debate over what to do in the war in Libya, as the 60-day mark neared and there had been in congressional authorization for it, Jeh Johnson was a voice of restraint in that case. He was arguing that the administration needed to ramp down its military engagement because of the War Powers Resolution and the restrictions on presidential power that it imposed, against other voices in the administration who in that case were arguing for greater flexibility.

So he’s been engaged in some of the thornier legal dilemmas that this administration has encountered. He was a major player in reforming military commissions in 2009…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: … and then restarting them a couple years later, as well as the don’t ask, don’t tell law you mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dan Klaidman, let’s turn this to the Department of Homeland Security, huge agency, what is it, 240,000 employees, 22 different agencies under the department umbrella.

What is it that he — that a leader of that agency needs to be able to do?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, that is — it’s really the most — one of the most difficult management challenges in the entire federal government, partly because what you alluded to before, all of these agencies that have different missions and different cultural heritages, and they have only been working together for a relatively short period of time.

So what the head of the agency — Department of Homeland Security has to do is to find a way to unify all of these disparate components and agencies and get everybody moving in the same direction. That is an enormously difficult task.

Just think of the fact that you have the Border Patrol. You have got guys on horses in California. You have customs people in Burlington, California, all over the country. And none of these people really have strong connections to the leadership in Washington.

There are — they may have resolved this, but there are logistical problems at a place like DHS, where there wasn’t even a common e-mail system. And so just communicating with people is difficult. So all of these things, the new head of DHS is going to have to do.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s what I wanted to — to turn to you, Charlie, on that.

It is the sense that Johnson brings the background to be able to run — he clearly ran a lot of lawyers at the Pentagon. What about his experience running something as big as DHS?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, unlike his predecessor, his likely predecessor, if he gets confirmed, Janet Napolitano, who had been the governor of a border state, unlike Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner, who was mentioned as a potential pick for this slot, Jeh Johnson has not run a very, very large organization from the executive boardroom level.

 

He’s been the lawyer for people who have done that. And so this will — he’s a policy thinker, he’s a very deliberative person. He’s given speeches that I think the president admires about the future of the war on terror. But I would also suspect that he will need a deputy who has more sort of day-to-day, make-the-trains-run-on-time experience for this to be a productive, successful management experience for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Klaidman, what is it that…

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: I think, Judy…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead. Yes.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: I was just going to say, I think the question for Jeh Johnson — because no one really expects the head of a department to run the department in a really granular sense. They have to have vision, they have to have leadership abilities.

The question for Jeh Johnson is going to be, does he have the judgment to pick the right people, to put a team around him that can do this? Does he have the confidence to keep the people who are already there who are good? One example would be the head of FEMA, Craig Fugate, who by all accounts has done a sort of miraculous job transforming FEMA.

So he would look to — I would think, to keep someone like him. And does he have the ability to delegate? Ultimately, those are the kinds of leadership questions that people are going to want to know and hear about from Jeh Johnson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick answer from you, Charlie Savage. Is he expected to get a rough ride from Republicans during confirmation?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: We did see a few Republican voices today saying, hey, this guy is a Democratic fund-raiser, he’s a — you know, this is not the person you put in charge of DHS. This is the person that you give a plum ambassadorship to.

And I think that that criticism will be attempted against him. The problem is, he’s had such a substantive career, in addition to being a major Democratic fund-raiser, that it’s going to be hard to portray him as someone who’s simply someone who did some favors to Obama back in the day.

RAY SUAREZ: Charlie Savage, Dan Klaidman, we thank you both.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Thank you.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.