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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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
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
A DIFFERENT BATTLE
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
"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)
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