President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next Homeland Security secretary has been a staunch defender of the U.S. drone program as a Pentagon lawyer and spoke out against enhanced judicial oversight of the program after leaving government service.
“I love this country, I care about the safety of our people, I believe in public service and I remain loyal to you Mr. President,” Jeh Johnson said at the White House Rose Garden announcement Friday. A former general counsel for the Defense Department, Johnson helped change the policy on military commissions at Guantanamo Bay and pushed for ditching the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military.
During a March speech at Fordham University, months after leaving the Defense Department post, he supported the use of drones and dismissed the notion of a “drone court” to provide additional oversight for strikes. Advocates for such a court said the court would be similar to the FISA court.
“In my view targeted lethal force is at its least controversial when it is on its strongest, most traditional legal foundation,” Johnson said. “The essential mission of the U.S. military is to capture or kill an enemy. Armies have been doing this for thousands of years. As part of a congressionally-authorized armed conflict, the foundation is even stronger.”
He said that FISA oversight is an extension of Fourth Amendment protections, which is not applicable in war.
“The idea of judicial authorization of lethal force against an enemy combatant, particularly during armed conflict, has no similar roots in an activity typically performed by the judiciary,” Johnson said. “To the contrary, 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 served in his previous Pentagon job from 2009 through 2012. President Bill Clinton named him to serve general counsel for the Air Force from 1998 to 2001. Before that, he was an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1989 to 1991.
Since leaving the government, Johnson joined the Washington law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Obama pledged the close the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison when he came into office by early 2010 — a pledge he still hasn’t kept. But Johnson was credited with military tribunal reforms to Guantanamo Bay. He also told Congress that some terror suspects would be detained at the prison indefinitely, Voice of America reported.
Though seemingly hawkish on some issues, he said last November in a speech at Oxford University that the war on terror cannot be the “new normal.”
“War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. War permits one man – if he is a ‘privileged belligerent,’ consistent with the laws of war — to kill another,” Johnson said. “War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the new normal.”
Johnson also co-authored a 250-page report for the Pentagon with Gen. Carter F. Ham setting up the legal argument for Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010, according to The Washington Post.
“Jeh appreciates that any organization’s greatest asset is its people,” Obama said in the Rose Garden Friday. “At the Pentagon, he guided the report explaining why allowing our men and women in uniform to serve their country openly would not weaken our military. Congress ended up using that report that Jay helped to craft to end up repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ And our military is stronger because we did it. I know he will bring that same commitment to our hardworking folks at DHS.”
Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were present for the announcement, while other cabinet members sat in the audience.
Born on Sept. 11, 1957, Johnson will be the fourth secretary of Homeland Security since the department’s founding if confirmed by the Senate. His nomination comes after Janet Napolitano left the job to become president of the University of California system. He said he had not planned on returning to the government.
“When I received the call, I could not refuse it,” Johnson said Friday. “I am a New Yorker and was present in Manhattan on 9/11 which happens to be my birthday. When that bright, beautiful day, a day something like this, was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history, I wandered the streets of New York that day and asked, what can I do?”