Obama to pick former Pentagon lawyer to replace Napolitano

The White House has selected the Pentagon's former top attorney to lead the Department of Homeland Security, a White House official confirmed to The Hill.

President Obama intends to nominate former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson to replace Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary, the official said. Johnson’s nomination will be announced at a White House ceremony on Friday.

Johnson left the Pentagon at the end of 2012 to return to private practice after serving as the Defense Department’s top lawyer through Obama’s first term.

He played a role in helping craft the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies, and he was a key player in the administration’s effort to repeal the ban on gay service members serving openly in the military.

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Johnson’s nomination was first reported by The Daily Beast.

Johnson will replace Napolitano, who left her post last month to become the next president of the University of California system.

During her time heading the agency, Napolitano was a champion of comprehensive immigration reform, touring border areas and lobbying lawmakers. That effort is expected to continue, with Obama saying Thursday he wants legislation passed by Congress before the end of the calendar year.

While Johnson's expertise lies more in national security than immigration, the former Pentagon lawyer will hope to avoid the frequent criticism Napolitano earned from conservatives, who challenged her department on a multitude of issues, including its decision to impose more invasive searching procedures in airports in the wake of a failed terrorist attack. The tougher procedures earned Napolitano the infamous nickname "Big Sis" from the Drudge Report.

Confirming a new DHS secretary could prove a particular challenge for the White House because of the role the department could play in implementing the new immigration reform package.

Under the Senate bill passed late last month, the DHS would be charged with implementing the E-Verify program requiring employers to validate the status of workers, as well as new border security measures Republicans see as essential to the immigration effort.

It's also possible that Senate Republicans could hold up a nomination in protest of the Obama administration's decision last year to suspend the deportation of certain illegal immigrants who entered the country as children.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said earlier this summer that any nominee "must disavow these aggressive non-enforcement directives or there is very little hope for successful immigration reform."

Johnson's selection comes after some Republicans on Capitol Hill had questioned why the president had taken so long to name a new departmental head. After the Capitol complex was locked down following a police pursuit that resulted in the shooting death of a suspect earlier this month, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) questioned why President Obama had not moved forward.

On Wednesday, press secretary Jay Carney said Obama "moves in a very deliberate fashion to nominate individuals for important posts, and he'll continue to do that."

It had appeared that New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly was the original front-runner for the job, although it is unclear whether he turned it down. 

In an interview with Univision, Obama said he'd "want to know" if Kelly was interested in the job, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he called White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to recommend Kelly for the post.

"Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is, but if he's not, I'd want to know about it because obviously, he'd be very well-qualified for the job," Obama said in an interview with Univision's New York City affiliate.

A senior administration official said that Johnson was selected for his "sound judgment and counsel" as the Pentagon's top lawyer, where he signed off on every military operation approved by the president and secretary of Defense and led a legal staff of 10,000.

"Johnson is consistently praised by current and former members of the military as an honest broker with a firm understanding of the law," the official said.

Johnson was at the center of developing some of the administration's most sensitive national security policies, the official said.

The official also cited his record working between agencies, pointing to the Pentagon's assistance to Homeland Security during disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the 2010 BP oil spill.

—This story was updated at 4:29 p.m.