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.
Now a partner at a private law firm, Johnson served as general counsel at the Pentagon during Obama's first term. While at the Defense Department, he was involved in ending the military's ban on gays and in formulating the administration's policy for the use of unmanned drones. He also worked on counterterrorism, cybersecurity and disaster response, all of which will be issues he will have to address as head of Homeland Security.
Johnson, whose first name is pronounced "Jay," would succeed Janet Napolitano, who left the post last month to become president of the University of California system.
As a top military lawyer, Johnson has spent most of his career dealing with national security issues, including the use of military commissions rather than civilian courts to try terrorism suspects. He also oversaw the escalation of the use of unmanned drone strikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Jeh has a deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States," Obama said in announcing the nomination at the White House.
Johnson, a multimillionaire lawyer outside of his government posts, has defended the administration's targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas as well as the role of U.S. spy courts and crackdowns to keep government secrets.
Johnson must win confirmation in the Senate to take the post. In an indication of the challenges ahead, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., 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, officer morale has plummeted, and the integrity of the entire immigration legal system is in jeopardy," Sessions said in a statement.
A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Senate's Homeland Security committee, said on Thursday that 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 9/11 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 as a leading priority of the remainder of his second term, and said he would focus on the issue now that a bruising fight with Congress over reopening the government and avoiding default is over.
The president, who won re-election last year with overwhelming Hispanic backing, had hoped to enact 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 Republicans are divided over the granting of legal status to those in the country without legal authorization.
Al Jazeera and wire services