President Obama's pick to be the Homeland Security secretary said Wednesday that filling key leadership vacancies and improving morale is more critical currently than the department's core counterterrorism mission.
In answers to questions leading up to his Senate confirmation hearing, Jeh Johnson deviated from his predecessors' stated priorities by listing counterterrorism third instead of first, among priorities.
Johnson's priorities may say less about his commitment to fighting terrorism and more about the struggling state of the massive department created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, however. Roughly 40 percent of the senior leadership positions are vacant at the department responsible for enforcing immigration and trade laws, securing the nation's borders, protecting the president and countering drugs and terrorism. And it has long been ranked among the federal agencies with the lowest morale.
The long-time Obama supporter and former Defense Department general counsel testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. Johnson is expected to win Senate confirmation and would be the fourth Homeland Security secretary, if confirmed.
Johnson, a multimillionaire attorney who was largely unknown in homeland security circles, was greeted in the hearing room by a small group of protesters decrying his role as a former top Defense Department lawyer who authorized drone strikes abroad. Capitol Police officers quickly moved the protesters to the back of the crowded room as they chanted "no drone lawyer for DHS" and carried pink signs.
Johnson was nominated by Obama, and some have questioned whether he has the necessary law enforcement and management experience to run the more than 200,000-employee agency.
In his opening statement, Johnson addressed those concerns immediately.
"I have experience in law enforcement," he said, citing his two years of experience as a federal prosecutor in New York. "I worked with law enforcement officers of the Secret Service, what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, the DEA and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies."
Johnson also cited his 27 months as part of a senior management team of the Air Force and four years in senior management at the Defense Department. He said he learned from the management styles of former Defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking Republican on the panel, said while he is confident Johnson will be confirmed, he said he was concerned that prepared answers to 23 questions on Johnson's customary pre-hearing questionnaire used the exact wording as several other Obama administration nominees.
"They're not your answers," Coburn said. "The shoddy work ... does not serve the committee well. The exact words that have been thrown before the committee before. The point is to get your thoughts. That doesn't serve Mr. Johnson well and that's one of the problems at Homeland Security, that sometimes the secretary is not served well by his staff."
In the questionnaire, Johnson placed two major management challenges above the department's core counterterrorism mission.
"First, there is a leadership vacuum within DHS of alarming proportions," Johnson wrote in his response to the Senate's question about what highest priority items he would focus on as secretary. Second among his top priorities was addressing low morale.
"Third, the counterterrorism mission: I believe we have crossed into a new phase in the terrorists threats we face," Johnson wrote. He said the terror threat to the U.S. has become harder to detect because of al-Qaida splinter groups that are not affiliated with core al-Qaida members.
Johnson listed "common-sense immigration reform" as his seventh priority. The White House has said immigration reform is among its top priorities.
In similar pre-hearing questionnaires, Johnson's Homeland Security predecessors Janet Napolitano, Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge all stated counterterrorism as their top priorities.
A Republican senator, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, has promised to block his nomination in an effort to compel the Obama administration to make the survivors of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi available to speak with lawmakers.
If confirmed, Johnson would take over the product resulting from the federal government's largest reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947.
"DoD was not perfect at its inception," Johnson wrote in one of his answers. "I recognize that for any large and complex organization with multiple components and missions, there is always room for improvement."