WASHINGTON – Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel who established the legal frameworks for lethal drone strikes and for allowing gays to serve openly in the military, will be nominated by President Barack Obama as secretary of Homeland Security, according to administration officials.
Johnson, 56, was an early supporter of Obama’s presidential ambitions and an adviser to his campaign. He contributed more than $33,000 in 2008 to Obama’s fundraising committees.
Johnson, who is African-American, would join two other black members of the president’s Cabinet, Attorney General Eric Holder and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Holder is not expected to stay at the Justice Department through Obama’s second term, and Johnson’s confirmation might make it politically easier for Holder to leave.
As general counsel at the Defense Department, Johnson managed more than 10,000 lawyers from 2009 to 2012 before returning to work at the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison..
Obama is expected to make the announcement today at the White House. Johnson would succeed Janet Napolitano, who left in September to become president of the University of California system.
If confirmed in the new post, Johnson would face the gargantuan task of managing 240,000 employees in a department that was cobbled together after Sept. 11, 2001, from 22 disparate agencies with distinct cultures and histories.
Despite some success by previous secretaries at knitting together the huge department, Homeland Security has been repeatedly criticized by its inspector general for weak management and patterns of wasteful spending.
By nominating Johnson, Obama is elevating a person who was intimately involved in making decisions about the targeted killings of suspected al-Qaida members. Johnson made legal determinations on purported terrorists that the military planned to kill, according to former U.S. officials.
His nomination could put pressure on the White House to shed more light on the secret program. When the Senate considered John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director in March, members of Congress demanded that Obama reveal how the administration made its decisions on whom to kill.
In internal policy dogfights over the targeted-killing policy, Johnson argued strongly for a more expansive view of who could be considered a target, officials said.