President Barack Obama’s choice to run the Homeland Security Department placed the agency’s core mission — counterterrorism — as his third priority during a confirmation hearing Wednesday and took some criticism for submitting written answers to Congress that cribbed responses from several other Obama administration nominees.
The two-hour hearing for Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s former top lawyer, was largely cordial. Most senators questioning him suggested he was likely to win confirmation easily and would become the fourth Homeland Security secretary. But following the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he planned to place a hold on his nomination, joining another senior Republican senator who has made the same pledge.
In answers to a committee prehearing questionnaire Johnson said his top three priorities were filling vacancies at the department, addressing low morale and terrorism — priorities which say less about the terror threat to the U.S. and more about what’s happened to the sprawling bureaucracy created after the 9/11 attacks.
Ten years after the department was formed, the mere challenge of running the agency has overtaken countering terrorism. And Congress appears to be OK with that, as senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee did not raise any issue with Johnson’s priority list.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, however, the leading Republican on the committee, said he was concerned that Johnson’s written answers to customary prehearing questions used the same language in 23 instances as several other Obama administration nominees.
In one case, Johnson’s answer to a question was identical to the answer another Homeland Security nominee, Suzanne Spaulding, provided senators earlier this year.
“I will continue to engage them in strengthening our public-private partnership by participating in trusted communities to enhance collaboration and build shared threat knowledge,” both Johnson and Spaulding wrote in their answers to questions about cybersecurity.
“They’re not your answers,” Coburn said to Johnson. “The point is to get your thoughts.”
Coburn said he wouldn’t consider the questionnaire complete until the committee received new answers to the questions. Coburn also said he expected Johnson’s nomination to win Senate approval.
Johnson, a multimillionaire attorney who was largely unknown in homeland security circles before his nomination, was greeted in the hearing room by a small group of protesters decrying his role as a former top Defense Department lawyer who authorized U.S. drone strikes abroad.
Some have questioned whether he has the requisite law enforcement and management experience to run a department responsible for enforcing immigration and trade laws, securing the nation’s borders, protecting the president, and countering drugs and terrorism.
Johnson said he does have the right experience, and Republicans, Democrats, some state and local law enforcement executives and the past three Homeland Security secretaries agree.
Johnson’s resume was not among the reasons there are holds on his nomination.
McCain said he would block the nomination because Johnson “refused to tell me that he would give me the information as to what is necessary to have 90 percent effective control of our border.”
“I’m a member of that committee. I live in a border state. I think I need the information,” McCain said. Johnson told McCain during the hearing that he didn’t have specific border enforcement details and said he was “inclined” to get that information to McCain, if he’s confirmed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., previously had promised to block Johnson’s nomination in an effort to compel the Obama administration to make the survivors of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, available to speak with lawmakers. But that was not personal either. Graham has promised to block the president’s nominee to run the Federal Reserve for the same reason.
If confirmed, Johnson would take over what has become the largest federal government reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947.
“I understand that a bureaucracy is a large, sluggish aircraft carrier that will, if you let it, just kind of chug along in a certain direction,” Johnson said. “And I think good leaders need to push it sometimes in different directions, which can be uncomfortable for a lot of people.”
Currently, roughly 40 percent of the senior leadership positions are vacant at the department, and it has long been ranked among the federal agencies with the lowest morale.
“My first priority,” Johnson told the hearing, “will be to work to fill the remainder of those leadership vacancies.”
Johnson’s comments Wednesday repeated what he provided senators in his prehearing questionnaire.
“First, there is a leadership vacuum within DHS of alarming proportions,” he wrote. Second among his top priorities was addressing low morale. “Third, the counterterrorism mission.”
In similar prehearing questionnaires, Johnson’s Homeland Security predecessors — Janet Napolitano, Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge — all said counterterrorism was their top priority.
Johnson listed “common-sense immigration reform” as his seventh priority. The administration has said immigration reform was among its top priorities and his selection suggested that the White House would take the lead in the push to pass comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation.