Will Jeh Johnson Make the Homeland More Secure?


Jeh Johnson, President Obama’s pick to replace outgoing Secretary Janet Napolitano as head of the Department of Homeland Security, will appear before the Senate Homeland Security Committee this week for his confirmation hearing. Johnson is an obscure figure to the general public, but his likely confirmation does not bode well for human rights, or your civil liberties. Johnson is civil and criminal trial lawyer who made millions defending corporations such as Citigroup and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. His government positions included a stint as New York assistant US attorney and general counsel for the Pentagon from 2009 to 2012, during President Obama’s first term.

Johnson’s nomination came as a surprise even to the Washington beltway crowd. In a July National Journal poll asking more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts who should replace retiring Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, suggestions included retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen (he oversaw relief efforts for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which is one of the department’s responsibilities), Homeland Security undersecretary Rand Beers, number two at department Jane Holl Lute, NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly, and former California Congresswoman Jane Harman. Not a single person cited Jeh Johnson.

Johnson’s nomination was also a surprise to the law enforcement groups that are supposed to be the agency’s key partners. “I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup with the Marx Brothers,” James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told an AP reporter.

One reason for Johnson’s unexpected nomination might well have to do with money. He was a heavy-weight fundraiser for Obama, raising more than $200,000 during Obama’s first campaign for office, according to USA Today reported in 2009. During the 2008 race, Obama’s campaign website listed Johnson as a member of his national finance committee. Federal records show that Johnson has personally contributed over $100,000 to Democratic groups and candidates, including influential senators such as Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin and James Clyburn.

Republicans have voiced concerns over political cronyism, calling Johnson more a fundraiser than someone with the expertise needed to oversee the gargantuan 240,000-employee department that was cobbled together from 22 separate agencies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Johnson has never managed a government agency, much less one that combines within its purview everything from terrorism to drugs, cyber attacks, natural disasters, immigration, protecting the president and securing air travel.

Johnson might also be receiving a kick upstairs for having been an unapologetic supporter and enabler of President Obama’s policy of drone warfare. His tenure at the Defense Department was marked by a dramatic increase in US drone strikes by both the military and the CIA. Johnson himself was personally responsible for providing the legal rationale for the military’s involvement in the drone program, and those legal memos remain hidden from the public and most of the Congress.

When some administration officials argued for more restrictions on drone strikes, particularly against lower-level militants, Johnson argued the more hawkish view. In Somalia, for example, the New York Times reported that Jeh Johnson was the voice saying that Al-Shabab was a full affiliate of al-Qaeda, and since we are at war with with Al Qaeda, it is fine to target even lower-level militants.

To the great dismay of civil rights advocates, Johnson also argued that U.S. citizens could be targeted in strikes. “Belligerents who also happen to be U.S. citizens do not enjoy immunity where noncitizen belligerents are valid military objectives,” he said in a speech at Yale Law School. Johnson put his legal rationale into practice by authorizing the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Al-Qaeda supporter who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Johnson’s support of drone warfare could bolster the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to beef up its fleet of domestic drones, including Predator drones, with “nonlethal weapons.”

From its inception following the 9/11 attack, the agency has encouraged the proliferation of a national security state: surveillance cameras, armed personnel carriers, spy drones. It has awarded some $35 billion in Homeland Security grants for police departments to arm themselves with paraphernalia usually reserved for war zones. (For example, thanks to DHS, Fargo, North Dakota, a city with fewer than two homicides a year, got a new $256,643 armored truck; Montgomery County in Texas purchased a new $300,000 Vanguard ShadowHawk drone.)

Despite the overwhelming outrage by the public, Johnson has defended the NSA’s massive spying on Americans, asserting that when you make a phone call, you have no legitimate expectation of privacy when it comes to the collection of metadata—phone numbers, duration of calls, even GPS location. Johnson said the NSA’s data collection was “probably the most regulated national security program we have.”

It should come as no surprise that Johnson is an outspoken advocate for the criminal prosecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. He served as general counsel during the height of the WikiLeaks scandal, calling Wikileaks disclosures “illegal and irresponsible actions,” and claiming that the leaking of classified materials aided America’s enemy.

At a 2011 Pentagon commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson made the controversial statement that King would have supported the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he claimed. This is the same Dr. King who called the US was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, the same Dr. King who said that a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

While no one should attempt to speak for the great civil rights leader, I wonder what Dr. King would have thought about Jeh Johnson’s nomination and the enormous Department of Homeland Security, whose $50 billion price tag is robbing funds from programs of social uplift.

“Spiritual doom” comes to mind.

If you think Jeh Johnson’s confirmation will threaten our security more than secure it, send a message now to the Senators on the Committee on Homeland Security, and tell them to reject Johnson to head the DHS.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. She is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.


Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human right organization Global Exchange. Follow her on twitter at @MedeaBenjamin.

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