WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When anti-war activists projected a movie about drones onto the brick front of Jeh Johnson’s home in November, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become homeland security secretary did not try to pull the plug.
Instead, the former Pentagon top lawyer slipped out a back door and approached Codepink, asking, “Would you like to talk?” In March, Johnson kept his promise to meet with the protest group, which questioned counterterror operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It was a constructive conversation,” Johnson said during an interview at the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in Washington.
Since assuming office five months ago, Obama’s newest cabinet member has encouraged engagement - with Congress, the media and his agencies - as he tries to recharge the government’s third-largest department, with 240,000 employees and a portfolio that stretches from tornadoes to terrorism.
“There’s just a constant flow of communication,” said Senator Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “And I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t have that in the past.”
Johnson, a 56-year-old corporate trial lawyer, replaced Janet Napolitano on December 23 to become the third African American in Obama’s cabinet. He inherited a behemoth created from the panic of the September 11, 2001 attacks and plagued by low morale, leadership vacuums and misbehavior in divisions, including the Border Patrol, transportation security and the Secret Service.
Johnson watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on his 44th birthday from his Manhattan law office. Ten years later, he was at the Pentagon, giving legal authorization to the raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of those attacks.
As a former Defense Department general counsel, Johnson was behind the scenes for some of the biggest headlines of Obama’s presidency: repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays, trials of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and the targeted killings, increasingly by armed drones, of suspected al Qaeda militants and their allies abroad.
Now, Johnson’s first cabinet job puts him at the center of an intense public debate over U.S. immigration laws.
Leon Panetta, who was Johnson’s boss at the Pentagon, said he is well suited for the job.
“A lot of times you run into lawyers in government who tell you how you can’t get anything done, because of the law,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s not what Jeh’s about.”
Obama is trying to balance pressure from immigrant groups to curb deportations with the risk of alienating Republicans, whose support he needs to pass immigration reform laws.
Johnson said his approach - meeting with people from all sides of the immigration debate - resembles his approach in tackling the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In 2010, after seeking input from half a million service members and spouses, he co-wrote a report that said repealing the policy would not hurt military readiness and then helped explain it to lawmakers.
“A lot of people in this town make up their minds about an issue before they even become steeped in it,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important to be sure to have a conversation with people, have an open mind and want to better understand the issue.”
Johnson was seen as surprise pick to lead Homeland Security.
Human rights groups questioned his role in the targeted killing program and urged senators to demand his views on the legal authority and scope of the killings.
Some Republicans derided Johnson as an Obama loyalist with little experience in law enforcement and immigration. Johnson was an adviser and fundraiser for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
But the longtime Democrat has won praise from some powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Since assuming office, he has worked to fill long-vacant top jobs at the department, quick action that drew praise from Republican Representative Michael McCaul.
“His outreach to members of Congress has been really impressive,” said McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.
Johnson, for all his impeccable suits and lawyerly restraint, clearly enjoys bucking Washington decorum.
“I make my own phone calls,” he told an audience of federal workers recently. “This drives my front office staff crazy.”
But getting anything done in a gridlocked Congress gearing up for November elections is far from certain.
Legislation to address how companies disclose cyber-security breaches has been thwarted repeatedly. Overhauling U.S. immigration laws could be even more difficult.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies met Johnson this month with other groups seeking immigration curbs. “He did not strike me as a politician who was kind of mouthing words until you went away,” Krikorian said. “He was actually talking to us.”
But the bottom line was: “We’re not changing our view. He’s not changing his.”
Johnson faced different battles running the team of 10,000 lawyers at the Pentagon, where he faced difficult decisions about the legality of counterterrorism operations. Daniel Klaidman’s 2012 book, “Kill or Capture,” quotes him as saying, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”
Johnson, who has not served in the military, admitted the job took a toll.
“Nothing as a civilian lawyer can prepare you for conducting such a weighty legal review,” he said in an interview. “And so when I would sign off on an operation and it was successful, even when it was successful, I felt the weight of that.”
Editing by Caren Bohan, Marilyn Thompson and Steve Orlofsky