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DHS Nominee Faces Huge Challenges, Uncertain Support

Nov. 9, 2013 - 04:20PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY and JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Jeh Johnson
Jeh Johnson ()
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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Jeh Johnson, the White House’s nominee to become the fourth secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, will head up to Capitol Hill for his first public comments since being nominated last month.

Running the 22-agency, 240,000-employee organization that does everything from protecting land and maritime borders to processing immigration applications to cleaning up after natural disasters is no easy task, and one his predecessors have struggled with at times.

If confirmed, Johnson will face many issues. Chief among them will be dealing with the lack of permanent staffing at the top of the organization while managing the flat-lining budgets imposed by sequestration.

The top four positions at DHS — secretary, deputy secretary, chief of staff and the executive secretariat — are all held by acting directors, and 16 other top leadership posts are either vacant or staffed temporarily.

The biggest leadership gaps are in Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Office of Cybersecurity.

DHS’ budget, after growing through the early 2000s, has leveled off at $60 billion, and slid by about $1 billion in the fiscal 2014 request.

For a department that is expected to secure the continental United States from the air, land and sea while taking over a larger chunk of the nation’s cyber defenses, living within its means will be something new.

“The low-hanging fruit is all gone from a budget standpoint,” said Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“There’s no easy choices in terms of being able to cut,” he added. “You’re faced with a situation where, do you cut force levels, or delay reinvestment of screening equipment or marine assets?”

Since the department has lived its decade-long existence during a time of ballooning government spending, “before last year, they never had to make those tradeoffs and investment decisions,” Beckner said.

One of the largest tasks the next DHS director could face is if immigration reform finally becomes law, and up to 11 million undocumented aliens living in the United States are brought into the national system.

“There will be huge, unprecedented logistical and administrative challenges if DHS is called on” to collect the information from these millions of people, said Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But DHS faces other challenges that are not cut and dried. Chief among them is creating a single departmental identity out of so many previously independent offices with long histories and traditions of their own.

“This has been a challenge ever since the department was created,” Alden said, “but it continues to be a department dominated by its powerful components with a very weak policy-planning function at the headquarters level.”

He called the task of creating a single identity “DHS’ Goldwater-Nichols problem — it took decades to create a single coherent agency out of the Pentagon. The DHS isn’t there yet.”

Some critics on Capitol Hill have expressed concerns over Johnson’s nomination because he has no law enforcement or homeland security experience.

In a statement released after Johnson’s nomination was announced, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, complained that Johnson doesn’t understand “the unique dynamics of our southern border … we need someone who knows how to secure the border.”

Still, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told Defense News on Nov. 7 that he expects no major hurdles for Johnson’s nomination.

“I haven’t heard anything to the contrary,” Levin said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also a Homeland Security Committee member, predicted the White House will provide Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., additional information about the deadly 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attack. Graham is pledging to hold up several Obama administration nominees, including Johnson, until his latest Benghazi demands are met.

“Obviously, I’m very strongly supportive of [Johnson],” McCain said during a brief interview. “Hopefully, Sen. Graham is going to get his concerns worked out.”

Asked if he has tried to bridge the gap between the White House and Graham, his close friend, McCain said: “Oh, yes. I think that they’re trying to satisfy Sen. Graham’s concerns.”

McCain predicted Johnson’s confirmation process will be mostly smooth.

“He’s very highly regarded here,” McCain said of Johnson’s reputation on Capitol Hill.

Johnson’s role as the Pentagon’s general counsel from 2009 to 2012 placed him at the center of the Obama administration’s deliberations over drone strikes abroad, which have come under fire from human rights groups and foreign governments over the killing of civilians.

One of the most controversial was the September 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. An American-born Islamic radical, Awlaki had been linked to several plots against the United States.

In May, Attorney General Eric Holder for the first time publicly admitted that the US had killed four Americans overseas in recent years.

Johnson offered a hearty rebuttal to critics in a February 2012 speech at Yale Law School, when he declared that “belligerents who also happen to be US citizens do not enjoy immunity where noncitizen belligerents are valid military objectives. Lethal force against a valid military objective, in an armed conflict, is consistent with the law of war and does not, by definition, constitute an assassination.”

President Barack Obama has remarked that he chose Johnson — who didn’t appear on any of the short lists to take over the organization — because of his “deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States” that he gained while at the Pentagon.

How that translates to the homeland security portfolio will begin to become clear at his Senate hearing this week. ■

Email: pmcleary@defensenews.com, jbennett@defensenews.com.

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