Our View

Johnson a good fit for Homeland Security

By From page A8 | October 24, 2013

The issue: Our nation’s third-largest bureaucracy has had only three leaders in its 12-year existence

When the Department of Homeland Security was hastily thrown together after the 9/11 attacks, it seemed to fit that classic description of bad design: that a camel was a horse designed by a committee

IN SHORT ORDER, 22 separate departments and agencies — from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard, with responsibilities ranging from naturalization to cyber security — were crammed into a single bureaucratic colossus. (Perhaps it’s best known, not always happily, for the Transportation Security Administration.)

With 240,000 employees, Homeland Security is the government’s third-largest department after Defense and Veterans Affairs. Surprisingly, given the high turnover in top Washington jobs, it has had only three secretaries in its 12-year existence. The most recent, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, served four years before departing last month to take over the University of California system.

Assuming the Senate agrees, the next head of DHS will be Jeh Johnson, 56, who brings an impressive legal résumé in military and national security issues. Unlike Napolitano and the department’s first secretary, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, he has no background in electoral politics. Given the current climate, that may not be such a bad thing.

Up until he left government in 2012, Johnson was the Pentagon’s top lawyer. In the Clinton administration, he was general counsel of the Air Force. Under President Barack Obama, he has wrestled with setting policy for the use of lethal drones, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but to kill Americans who have taken up arms with al-Qaida overseas.

He’s also been involved with: the intervention in Libya; repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military; the so-far-unsuccessful attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay prison; and the ongoing efforts to somehow prosecute terrorists before military rather than civilian courts.

JOHNSON WOULD take over as the number of fanatical anti-U.S. terrorist groups has metastasized across the Mideast and North Africa. As the saying goes, terrorists can fail a thousand times, but the United States has to let its guard down only once for another major strike to happen.

Johnson would be immeasurably helped in that safeguarding task if the White House and Congress would fill the one-third of key DHS agencies whose top jobs are either vacant or held by acting officials.

DHS founder Ridge has urged Johnson not to try to micromanage the huge agency but to concentrate on a handful of high-priority national security issues. The biggest, of course, is keeping the United States safe from terrorists — advice we endorse.

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