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New security secretary

Obama taps counterterrorism adviser from first term

Jeh Johnson speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington. President Barack Obama has chosen former Pentagon lawyer Johnson as the new secretary of the Homeland Security Department. Obama plans to announce Johnson’s nomination Friday. AP photo

Jeh Johnson speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington. President Barack Obama has chosen former Pentagon lawyer Johnson as the new secretary of the Homeland Security Department. Obama plans to announce Johnson’s nomination Friday. AP photo

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is calling back a trusted counterterrorism adviser from his first term by nominating former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson as secretary of homeland security.

Obama plans to announce Johnson’s nomination Friday. He must be confirmed by the Senate before taking over the post most recently held by Janet Napolitano, who stepped down in August to become president of the University of California system.

As general counsel at the Defense Department during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson was an aggressive advocate on a number of complex and contentious legal issues. He oversaw the escalation of the use of unmanned drone strikes, the revamping of military commissions to try terrorism suspects rather than using civilian courts and the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members. He also mapped out the legal defense for the American cross-border raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised Johnson’s selection Thursday, saying he has “impeccable judgment, leadership qualities and high ethical standards.”

At the Pentagon, Johnson was involved in the decision to move Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning from a military jail in Quantico, Va. to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Supporters of Manning, the young soldier who leaked thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, said conditions at the military jail in Virginia were too harsh.

Johnson led a widespread crackdown on unauthorized leaks in the Defense Department, including warning former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette that by publishing a book on the SEAL’s raid that killed bin Laden he was in “material breach” of two nondisclosure agreements he signed earlier in his career. He was also involved in the investigation of retired Marine Gen. John Allen and Tampa, Fla., socialite Jill Kelley.

Johnson sparked criticism when he said in a speech at Britain’s Oxford University last November that the war on terror was not an endless conflict and that the U.S. was approaching a “tipping point” after which the military fight against al-Qaida would be replaced by a law enforcement and intelligence operation.

“War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs,” Johnson said. “In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the new normal.”

Johnson was part of the team that looked at ways to bring women into combat missions and which assessed legal questions surrounding sexual assaults in the military, including how the chain of command should be involved in investigations and prosecutions. He also helped pave the way for the military’s 2010 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning openly gay service members.

“For those service members who are gay and lesbian, we lifted a real and personal burden from their shoulders,” Johnson said last year at an event recognizing the service of gay troops. “They no longer have to live a lie in the military.”

Johnson, a former assistant U.S. attorney who also was Air Force general counsel under President Bill Clinton, left the Obama administration in 2012 and returned to private practice.

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