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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday named former Pentagon attorney Jeh Johnson to run the Department of Homeland Security, where the task of securing the nation's borders will give Johnson a central role in the president's immigration reform efforts.
Johnson, now a partner at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, served as general counsel at the Pentagon during Obama's first term. There, he was involved in ending the military's ban on gays serving in the armed forces and in formulating the administration's policy for the use of unmanned drones to strike at enemy targets.
While at the Pentagon, Johnson also worked on counterterrorism, cyber security and disaster response, all of which will be issues he will have to address as head of Homeland Security.
"Jeh has a deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States," Obama said in announcing Johnson's nomination at the White House.
Johnson must win confirmation in the Senate. In an indication of challenges ahead of him, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Johnson would have to address concerns over management of the sprawling agency and allegations that immigration officers are releasing violent criminals.
"Enforcement has collapsed, offericer morale has plummeted, and the integrity of the entire immigration legal system is in jeopardy," Sessions said in a statement.
A spokesman for Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate's Homeland Security committee, said on Thursday the next department chief would be expected to bring about reform. Coburn has raised concerns about wasteful spending at the department, including grants for domestic law enforcement agencies used to buy drones for surveillance.
Speaking at the White House, Johnson described how being in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, had motivated him to pursue work in public service.
"I wandered the streets in New York and wondered, and asked, what can I do," he said. "Since then I have tried to devote myself to answer that question."
The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Obama has identified immigration reform a leading priority of the remainder of his second term, and said that he would focus on the issue now that a bruising fight with Congress over reopening government and avoiding default is over.
Obama, who won re-election last year with overwhelming Hispanic backing, had hoped to make reforms easing the plight of the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
The Senate passed an immigration overhaul in June, but House of Representatives Republicans are divided over the granting of legal status to those in the country illegally.
Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Mohammad Zargham