Ex-Pentagon Lawyer as Head of Homeland Security Could Signal the Wrong Direction

Oct 21, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

President Obama announced on Friday his pick for the next head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS is just over a decade old, created in the aftermath of 9/11 to "secure the nation from the many threats we face." Critics say that DHS is trying to cover too many of "the many threats," and it is hard to disagree when considering that 22 agencies were folded into the mega-agency, including: airport security (the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA), hurricane and other natural disaster response (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA), and a majority of the functions related to immigration, from border and interior enforcement to conferring benefits such as citizenship. DHS also plays a supporting role of sorts to the main national security agencies, by overseeing civilian cyber security and coordinating "fusion centers," a controversial effort to share counterterrorism intelligence between federal, state, and local law enforcement.

The president's pick is Jeh Johnson, a former top lawyer for the Pentagon. If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would be the fourth DHS Secretary. The first was Tom Ridge, a congressman then governor from Pennsylvania who oversaw the creation of the color-coded threat-warning system. George W. Bush's second appointment was Michael Chertoff, a federal prosecutor, Third Circuit judge, and co-author of the USA PATRIOT Act, whose vast expansions to law enforcement's surveillance and investigative powers is the foundation for the National Security Agency's data collection practices leaked by Edward Snowden. As DHS Secretary, Chertoff oversaw the colossal disgrace of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. And after leaving his post, he reportedly created a shadow homeland security agency mainly through a consulting firm that profits from government contracts for heightened security measures such as the TSA full-body scanning machine.

After President Obama came into office in 2009, he nominated a former Arizona governor, Janet Napolitano. Under Napolitano, the immigration enforcement arm of DHS has been particularly active, effectuating what has been described as a torrid pace of deportations of noncitizens, logging in approximately 400,000 deportations a year, putting the agency on track to deport 2 million immigrants by 2014, which is as many as the government deported between 1892 and 1997 combined. Napolitano also oversaw the continued trend of ballooning the agency's resources for border enforcement, including by the usual means of adding more border agents (the numbers are up to 21,000, from 15,000 in 2007), and by more innovative ways such as using predator drones (currently for surveillance purposes only, but the agency reportedly has considered weaponizing these controversial unmanned aircrafts).

The nomination of Jeh Johnson could be a telling choice for the direction of DHS. Johnson's last public service position was with the Pentagon (his main job has been as a corporate lawyer). As the war agency's general counsel, Johnson was amongst the legal justifiers of the use of drones to go after designated terrorists on the administration's so-called "kill list," and revitalized military commissions to replace civilian courts to try suspected terrorists. He also oversaw the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members. Johnson's background renders him more of a natural fit for the security and counter-terrorism functions of DHS, but there are other vital jobs of the agency that are in desperate need of tending. Devastating natural disasters in the U.S. are on the rise, and immigrant rights advocates are calling for an end to the massive deportations being carried out by DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Moreover, blending further the functions of our immigration system with militarism would be a troubling direction. If confirmed, let's hope that Johnson strives to be as multi-faceted as the agency he will oversee.