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Former Defense Dept. Lawyer Tapped To Head Homeland Security


President Obama today named former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson as his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would succeed Janet Napolitano who stepped down in August. The president said of Johnson, he's a cool and calm leader with experience running big, complex organizations. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, he'll need those skills to tackle what President Obama himself called a monumental task.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Homeland Security is a sprawling department with nearly a quarter million employees. It's responsible for everything from patrolling the border to cleaning up after hurricanes. Jeh Johnson has little experience with immigration or disaster response, but he's well versed in the national security parts of the job. Obama says his nominee believes in a personal way that keeping the country safe also requires protecting civil liberties.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Jeh understands that this country is worth protecting, not because of what we build or what we own, but because of who we are and that's what sets us apart.

HORSLEY: Johnson served during the president's first term as general counsel for the Defense Department where he handled legal review of drone strikes and also helped lift the ban on openly gay service members. After leaving the Pentagon last year, Johnson says he wasn't looking for another government job, but the Homeland Security post was an offer he couldn't refuse.

JEH JOHNSON: I am a New Yorker and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday. I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered, what can I do?

HORSLEY: Despite his Pentagon background, Johnson has warned against relying too heavily on the military to fight terrorism. Elisa Massimino who heads the group Human Rights First says Johnson's commitment to the rule of law and civil liberties should also be an asset at the Department of Homeland Security.

ELISA MASSIMINO: I always felt that we had a fair hearing with Jeh and while we didn't always agree, we had an open discussion and he was interested and sought out our views and listened to our concerns.

HORSLEY: James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation serves on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. He says the new secretary will have to be a quick study given the department's wide ranging assignments.

JAMES CARAFANO: You go from zero to 60 very quickly. There's no hurricanes, there's five hurricanes. There's no terrorist attacks, there's a terrorist attack. And the thing that makes them maybe the most unique is really the diversity of missions and requirements.

HORSLEY: And Carafano says the department's job will only get bigger if Obama succeeds in his push to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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