Obama's New Homeland Security Nominee Will Spark More Drone Debate

Jeh Johnson is well liked and respected in Washington, but his allegiance to President Obama — and, specifically, his statements on drones — might make him a hard sell to some.

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On Friday, President Obama nominated Jeh Johnson, formerly the Defense Department's general counsel, as the head of the Department of Homeland Security. If approved by the Senate he'd be taking over for Janet Napolitano, who stepped down earlier this summer. He's well liked and respected in Washington, but his allegiance to Obama — and, specifically, his statements on drones — might make him a hard sell to some.

Johnson worked with the administration during Obama's first term, when he was heavily involved in controversial decisions regarding increased use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists (as opposed to civilian courts), the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, attempts to close Guantanamo Bay, and the escalation of the drone program. In March, he shot down the suggestion of a "Drone Court" that would regulate the targeted-killing program. "The idea is motivated by a desire to rein in the president’s constitutional authority to engage in armed conflict and protect the nation, which is the very reason it has constitutional problems," Johnson said to an audience at a Center on National Security conference. But in a speech in March, Johnson called for more openness on the strikes, arguing that "in the absence of an official picture of what our government is doing... many in the public fill the void by imagining the worst." In May, while a guest on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, he admitted that a drone strike in Yemen that killed a 16-year-old American citizen was effectively an accident.

Beyond drones, the same people who'll be happy that he was involved in the decision to move WikiLeaks leaker Chelsea Manning from Quantico to Fort Leavenworth (where conditions are less harsh) might be upset about his crackdown on unauthorized leaking.

Others have been upset by his comments on war. Last November, while speaking at Oxford University, Johnson said that the U.S. war against al Qaeda would soon shift from combat to intelligence and law enforcement. "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." In his remarks that day he also implied that we would soon reach a point when all of al Qaeda's chief operatives are dead, which might worry some Senate Republicans concerned with growing extremism in Africa, wrote the conservative Washington Times.

Then there's just plain old politics. Johnson is described as a "well-known and trusted figure in the Obama White House," according to The Daily Beast, and that's enough reason to dislike him for some. Johnson was one of Obama's earliest supporters when he ran for office in 2008, and he campaigned and fundraised extensively for him. "The president is selecting Johnson because he is one the most highly qualified and respected national security leaders," an anonymous senior administration official told The Washington Post. "During his tenure at the Department of Defense, he was known for his sound judgment and counsel." We'll see if the Senate agrees.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.