Jeh Johnson, President Obama’s nomination for the new Department of Homeland Security secretary, is a uniting figure, with both liberals and conservatives suspicious of him. Liberals object to Jonhson’s record as general counsel for the Department of Defense, a role he held from 2009 to 2012, during which he authored the legal defense for using weaponized drones abroad. (A fact that Code Pink brought to the attention of Johnson’s Georgetown neighbors by projecting a “No Killer Drones” sign onto the outside of his house.) Conservatives dislike the fact that Johnson has been quiet about his position on immigration issues. When asked during a confirmation hearing about his first priority as DHS secretary, Johnson replied that he would improve the agency’s leadership, “champion” its employees and improve overall morale. He sounded like a professor at a business school, more of paper-pusher than a chest-thumper. It was a strangely low-drama performance for a secretary of homeland security. Senator John McCain said he would refuse to approve Johnson’s nomination until he gave a more detailed plan for border security; late last month, six Republican congressman on the House Judiciary Committee wrote a letter to Johnson asking that he spell out his beliefs on immigration matters. Despite these suspicions, Johnson is all but guaranteed to have his nomination approved as a result of Congress’s recent vote to forbid filibustering executive appointments.
Johnson’s previous support for drone use is more relevant to his new post than it might originally seem. A Customs and Border Patrol report obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation this summer showed that the agency was considering equipping its Predator drones with “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” targets—perhaps the first-ever proposal for flying weaponized drones domestically. But Johnson might have a more complicated—and more remorseful—view on drone use than in the past. According to Gregory Johnsen’s book The Last Refuge, Johnson was distraught after watching a drone attack in Yemen from a monitor in the White House—a device often referred to as “Kill TV.” “If I were a Catholic, I’d have to go to confession,” Johnson told a friend.
Improving morale may sound like a managerial platitude, but at DHS it’s a matter of some urgency. The agency is a mess. Over 40 percent of the agency’s top positions are vacant or have an “acting” placeholder. Surveys show that DHS employees are among the most dissatisfied of all government employees. The organizational dysfunction has become a security risk. DHS has been plagued by flagrant corruption and a shortage of oversight, as evidenced most recently by a GAO report showing that immigration detention officers were not reporting inmates’ sex abuse claims. A good manager is just what the agency needs.
Jeh Johnson is a New Yorker. He once said that he’d like to be a conductor on the 7 train between Manhattan and Queens in his next life. He was living in Manhattan on September 11, a fact he mentioned when he accepted the nomination: “I wandered the streets of New York,” Johnson said. “And asked, what can I do? Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question.”
Janet Napolitano, Johnson’s predecessor at DHS, was previously the governor of Arizona and used her federal post to be a spokesperson for the country’s southern border states. During her tenure, she deployed thousands of agents to the Mexico border and oversaw the deportation of 400,000 people a year—the most deportations of anytime in history. She made immigration enforcement a top national security priority and created a culture in which nonviolent immigrants were cast as major threats, in which a parent might very well be “immobilized” while crossing the Sonoran desert to reunite with his family in the United States.
With Johnson, the New Yorker with a defense background, DHS will be realigned with its original, post–September 11 purpose—a brand that has much less to do with immigration enforcement. His nomination represents a narrative shift for an agency that has, as Johnson said, lost its morale and its identity. Johnson offers the DHS a new story. How that story will play out is anyone’s guess.