Obama Taps Top Defense Lawyer as Homeland Security Chief

Top adviser for drones, Gitmo, drawdown from war goes to Congress for approval.

Former Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington on Nov. 30, 2010.
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President Barack Obama has tapped a former close adviser and lawyer with experience combatting and prosecuting al-Qaida to serve as the next secretary of Homeland Security.

Jeh Johnson served as general counsel to the Department of Defense from 2009 until 2012, when he resigned. In that capacity he provided advice to secretaries of Defense who have overseen the significant shifts in legal action that have defined the Obama and Bush administrations' pursuit and prosecution of al-Qaida operatives.

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He has overseen the legal framework for major military initiatives such as the drawdown in Afghanistan, the end of the war in Iraq, Obama's wide-reaching armed drone program and the military's new approach to prosecuting terrorists at overseas facilities such as the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, instead of civilian courts at home. He has also overseen the reversal of major military poliices, including the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly, and the ban on women filling combat billets.

It was Johnson's decision to move Pfc. Chelsea Manning from detainment in Quantico, Va. to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. after supporters leaked documents detailing harsh conditions at the Virginia facility.

Johnson has less experience with domestic issues such as immigration and border security than Janet Napolitano, who left the Homeland Security post in July for the University of California system, and who Johnson will succeed if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Former Defense chief Leon Panetta supported Johnson's nomination on Thursday, saying he has "impeccable judgement, leadership qualities and high ethical standards."

In a speech at the Fordham Law School in New York last March, Johnson outlined the difficulties of maintaining the kind of transparency the American public demands while also fighting an unconventional war abroad.

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"Lethal force outside the parameters of congressionally-authorized armed conflict by the military looks to the public to lack any boundaries," he said, "and lends itself to the suspicion that it is an expedient substitute for criminal justice."

He stressed that the Cabinet-level advisers to the president, who are themselves confirmed by the Senate, are able to exert great influence over the man who ultimately is able to send thousands of troops abroad and deploy nuclear weapons without congressional approval.

Johnson, a graduate of Morehouse and Columbia, began his career in the Southern District of New York as an assistant United States attorney, prosecuting corruption cases. He moved to the private New York-based law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison where he defended such large corporations as Citigroup and Salomon Smith Barney.

President Bill Clinton appointed him as general counsel to the Department of the Air Force in 1998, where he served for more than two years before again returning to private practice, and later as chairman of the New York Bar Association.

Obama tapped him to serve on his transition team, and was confirmed for his most recent position in 2009.

One of the most high-profile points of Johnson's latest career involved a speech he gave before the Oxford Union debating society, in which he gave his appraisal of the effectiveness of U.S. policies to defeat al-Qaida.

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"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, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed," he said in the November 2012 speech.

Johnson said there "is no compromise or political bargain that can be struck" with al-Qaida and its "radical and absurd goals."