Obama picks attorney Jeh Johnson for Homeland Security chief

Reuters

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama willnominate former Pentagon attorney Jeh Johnson, a nationalsecurity expert who had a role in ending the military's ban ongays in the military, to be Homeland Security chief, a WhiteHouse official said on Thursday.

Johnson, who served as general counsel in the Department ofDefense during Obama's first term, would succeed JanetNapolitano, who stepped down earlier this year. His nominationrequires Senate confirmation.

Obama will announce the selection during a White Houseceremony at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Friday.

"The president is selecting Johnson because he is one (of)the most highly qualified and respected national securityleaders, having served as the senior lawyer for the largestgovernment agency in the world," the official said.

"By advising the president and two secretaries of defense,he was at the center of the development of some of the mostsensitive and important national security policies andstrategies during the first term."

Johnson is now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton &Garrison, LLP.

Johnson was involved in the administration's policy over the legality of drone use.

He helped lead a review and authored a report that led tothe 2010 repeal of the "Don't' Ask, Don't Tell" policy thatprevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S.military.

The White House described Johnson as a key member of Obama'scounterterrorism circle.

"As a senior member of my management team at the Pentagon,Jeh worked on every major issue affecting America's security,including border security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity," said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in astatement. "I urge the Senate to act quickly to confirm him."

If confirmed, Johnson, an African-American, would bringfurther racial diversity to Obama's Cabinet. The first blackU.S. president has been criticized for having a high number ofwhite men in top Cabinet roles. Johnson graduated from MorehouseCollege in 1979 and Columbia Law School in 1982.

The nomination is the latest by Obama since he nominated Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen last week as the newhead of the U.S. central bank. It comes as the federalgovernment gets back into gear after a 16-day shutdown.

DISASTER RESPONSE, IMMIGRATION

Johnson was involved in helping the Department of Defenseprovide resources to the Department of Homeland Security duringdisaster responses such as Hurricane Sandy and the Gulf oilspill, the White House official said.

Disaster response, border security and immigration reform -a top priority of Obama's second term - are all major DHSresponsibilities.

"Jeh Johnson had a distinguished career at the Pentagonwhere he has grappled with the challenges of protecting nationalsecurity while respecting human rights and upholding Americanideals," said Elisa Massimino, head of Human Rights First, in astatement.

"The United States has a long history as a nation ofimmigrants, and part of that legacy includes our commitment toprotecting refugees. We urge Jeh Johnson to make this vulnerablepopulation a priority as his nomination moves forward."

A spokesman for Senator Tom Coburn, the top Republican onthe Senate's Homeland Security committee, said the nextdepartment chief would be expected to bring about reform.

"Dr. Coburn looks forward to meeting with Mr. Johnson andconsidering his qualifications to lead and reform DHS," thespokesman said.

Coburn has raised concerns about wasteful spending at thedepartment, including grants for domestic law enforcementagencies used to buy drones for surveillance.

Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House ofRepresentatives Homeland Security committee, criticized Obamafor leaving many positions at the agency unfilled.

"Even with this prospective nominee, over 40 percent ofsenior leadership positions at DHS are either vacant or have an'acting' placeholder," the Texas Republican said in a statement.

"The lack of leadership at the White House is reflected inthe holes in leadership at the Department, and these importantpositions must be filled in order to fill the holes in ourhomeland security."

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