Johnson, 56, will be formally announced as the nominee by Obama today, according to the official, who asked for anonymity because the decision hasn’t been made public.
Johnson, one of the president’s earliest supporters, was a fundraiser and senior foreign policy adviser on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama appointed him as Defense Department general counsel on Feb. 10, 2009. He resigned last December and returned to private practice as a partner in the Washington office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.
As the top lawyer at the Pentagon, he was at the center of some of the Obama administration’s highest-profile national security issues. Johnson was directly involved in changing the rules for military commissions such as those used to try accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and responding to the 2010 release of classified documents by Wikileaks about the war in Afghanistan.
“He’s really a good choice,” said Morris Davis, a former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay who has worked with Johnson. “He was in my view the best general counsel we had in my 25 years in the Air Force. He’s got the legal acumen, the people skills, the organizational skills.”
Johnson also helped lay the groundwork for ending the Defense Department’s 18-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gay service members from revealing their sexual orientation.
Johnson led a study in 2010 with former Army General Carter Ham that found ending the ban wouldn’t harm military effectiveness.
“We are convinced that the U.S. military can adjust and accommodate this change just as it has others in history,” their report said.
Last year, after the ban was lifted, Johnson participated in the Pentagon’s first celebration of Gay Pride Month in June.
“This is the first time in history such an event has occurred at the Pentagon,” Johnson said at a ceremony at which more than 350 gay and lesbian service members and their supporters overflowed the building’s auditorium.
He also oversaw the military’s counterterrorism policies. Last November, he detailed the legal challenges that the U.S. would face as it winds down its war against al-Qaeda, in a speech that was one of the first descriptions of a possible endpoint by an administration official.
“On the present course, there will come a tipping point -- a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed,” Johnson said in his November 2012 speech before the Oxford Union, the debating society in Oxford, England.
If confirmed, his responsibilities at the Department of Homeland Security will go beyond national security. The agency, with a $60 billion budget and 240,000 employees, has a broad mandate that includes oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration.
The National Immigration Law Center urged senators to confirm Johnson, saying he would be “a strong manager of what is undoubtedly one of the most complex cabinets within the executive branch.”
The secretary will probably be among the administration officials lobbying lawmakers on one of Obama’s policy priorities: a restructuring of the U.S. immigration system.
The law center, which advocates on behalf of immigrants, said it wants Johnson to fully implement directives to halt deportations of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.