Jeh Johnson, nominated to be the next secretary of Homeland Security, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The White House nominee to become the fourth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security faced sharp questions from Republican senators concerned with terrorism and border security Wednesday morning, although he voiced strong support for interrogating some suspects before they are read their Miranda rights.
Jeh Johnson, the former top Pentagon counsel who has argued in favor of drone strikes against terrorist targets overseas — including four US citizens — said that over the past several years, “we’ve had considerable success in taking out core al-Qaida” and affiliated groups in North Africa, Yemen and al Shabab in Somalia. But he believes that “we’re moving to a third phase where the terrorist threat is becoming even more diffused, and we’re seeing more self-radicalization” by people not formally affiliated with terror groups but who may sympathize with them.
“We’re seeing more lone wolf activity,” he said.
What that means for homeland security is that the federal government will need to forge closer relationships with state and local law enforcement departments to share information about these potential threats.
“This ties in with the Homeland Security mission” Johnson said. As these difficult-to-detect lone wolf threats grow in the future, “we’re going to have to be vigilant on the civilian side in law enforcement, border security and so forth.”
Without getting into specifics, he said, “technology is an important component of that, and surveillance technology is an important component of that. We also need to be very concerned about the privacy and civil liberty issues” associated with those technologies.
In comments that likely won’t play well with those concerned about the government’s ability to detain and interrogate US citizens without administering their Miranda rights, Johnson also voiced full support for “a national security intelligence interrogation, pre-Miranda, when you have somebody who is in the category of a national security threat who is captured or arrested.”
Interrogation of terror suspects before putting them into the federal courts system “has been a goldmine for us” he said. “The [president] and the Congress should look into codifying this into law ... because I think it’s going to become an increasingly important practice. There will be a need for this sort of interrogation.”
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. Three other American citizens have been killed in strikes in the Middle East and Africa in recent years.
Johnson said that one of this first priorities would be to deal with the lack of permanent staffing at the top of the organization. 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.
While filling those top slots are important, one of the most politically sensitive hot-button issues that all DHS secretaries must face is border security.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., got into a sharp exchange with Johnson over what the senator said has been a recent 20 percent rise in apprehensions along the border of people trying to illegally cross into the United States.
He asked Johnson if he would report back to the committee “the exact metrics that are needed, sector-by-sector, so that we can obtain 90 percent effectiveness on the border.”
Johnson refused to give the senator a yes or no answer, citing his need to talk to staff at DHS about their assessment of the situation. But without such assurances, McCain said that he “will not support [the] nomination until I get a yes answer.”
Johnson’s nomination is also subject to a hold placed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., over what he says is the Obama administration’s refusal to answer questions about the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Johnson’s nomination has picked up a slew of recommendations from former defense and national security officials, including retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs; retired four-star Marine Gen. John Allen; and former Bush homeland security adviser Frances Townsend.