A Drone Enabling NSA Apologist: Why We Should Oppose Jeh Johnson's Nomination
Jeh Johnson conducts a Pentagon press briefing.
Photo Credit: R. D. Ward/Dept. of Defense/Wikimedia Commons
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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."