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Associated Press
Jeh Johnson

Former Pentagon counsel Jeh Johnson picked for Homeland post

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama Friday named former Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson as his choice to become the next Homeland Security secretary.

“He’s been there in the Situation Room, at the table,” as the administration has pursued al-Qaida and other threats,” Obama said in introducing Johnson at the White House on Friday. He also took part in the decision to end the rule that banned openly gay people from serving in the military, Obama said.

Johnson, 56, said he “was not looking for this opportunity” but couldn’t turn it down. Johnson said he was in his native New York the day of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.

“I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered and asked, ‘What can I do?’ ’ he said in brief remarks during the Rose Garden ceremony.

If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson will take over a Cabinet department with a broad mandate that includes oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration.

The next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security also will be central in the debate over one of Obama’s policy priorities: a restructuring of the U.S. immigration system.

Johnson, if confirmed, would succeed Janet Napolitano, who left the administration to become president of the University of California system.

Johnson was a fundraiser and senior foreign policy adviser on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama appointed him as Defense Department general counsel on Feb. 10, 2009. He resigned last December and returned to private practice as a partner in the Washington office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

As the top lawyer at the Pentagon, he was at the center of some of the Obama administration’s highest-profile national security issues. Johnson was directly involved in changing the rules for military commissions such as those used to try accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and responding to the 2010 release of classified documents by WikiLeaks about the war in Afghanistan.

“He’s really a good choice,” said Morris Davis, a former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo who has worked with Johnson. “He was, in my view, the best general counsel we had in my 25 years in the Air Force. He’s got the legal acumen, the people skills, the organizational skills.”

Johnson also helped lay the groundwork for ending the Defense Department’s 18-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gay service members from revealing their sexual orientation.

Johnson led a study in 2010 with former Army Gen. Carter Ham that found ending the ban wouldn’t harm military effectiveness.

“We are convinced that the U.S. military can adjust and accommodate this change, just as it has others in history,” according to their report.

Last year, after the ban was lifted, Johnson participated in the Pentagon’s first celebration of Gay Pride Month in June.

He also oversaw the military’s counterterrorism policies. Last November, he detailed the legal challenges that the U.S. would face as it winds down its war against al-Qaida, in a speech that was one of the first descriptions of a possible endpoint by an administration official.

“On the present course, there will come a tipping point - a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed,” Johnson said in his November 2012 speech before the Oxford Union, the debating society in Oxford, England.

In her farewell address to the department at the end of August, Napolitano said her successor will need to confront the “evolving threat of terrorism, natural disasters and the need for strong border security and immigration enforcement.”

She also called on the next agency chief to increase protections against the cyber-attacks that plagued public and private institutions throughout her tenure.

Johnson previously served as general counsel of the Air Force during President Bill Clinton’s administration and was an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where he prosecuted public corruption cases.

The National Immigration Law Center urged senators to confirm Johnson. The law center, which advocates on behalf of immigrants, said it wants Johnson to fully implement directives to halt deportations of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

– With assistance from David Lerman in Washington.