Obama nominates ex-Pentagon lawyer to replace Napolitano

President Obama on Friday officially named his former top lawyer at the Pentagon as his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security. [WATCH VIDEO]

“He demonstrated again and again the qualities that will make him a strong secretary of Homeland Security."

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Johnson was the Pentagon’s top attorney throughout Obama’s first term, leaving the administration at the end of 2012 to return to private practice.

He was central to crafting the administration’s counterterrorism policies on issues like military detention and drone strikes, and he approved all military missions that Obama and the Defense secretary signed off on.

Johnson also spearheaded the effort with the Pentagon that led to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on gay service members serving openly.

Johnson has long been by the president's side, as he was recruited to join Obama’s presidential campaign in November 2006.

Johnson’s confirmation process will likely face resistance from Republicans, who have been critical of the Obama administration’s policies on immigration and border security.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Friday that he had “grave concerns” about Johnson’s lack of experience in law enforcement.

“After this administration’s mismanagement of DHS, in particular its failure to secure the border, Texans expect a nominee with serious management and law enforcement experience,” Cornyn said in a statement.

“Rather than selecting someone who knows the unique dynamics of our Southern border, President Obama has tapped one of his former New York fundraisers.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), one of the most critical Senate Republicans of the immigration reform bill that passed earlier this year, said Johnson will have to demonstrate that he will enforce immigration laws.

“ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers report that ‘violent criminals are released every day back into communities,’ and they even sued the DHS secretary herself over the non-enforcement directives they have received,” Sessions said in a statement.

“Enforcement has collapsed, officer morale has plummeted, and the integrity of the entire immigration legal system is in jeopardy,” Sessions said.

During her time heading the agency, Napolitano was a champion of comprehensive immigration reform, an effort that is expected to continue, with Obama saying Thursday he wants legislation passed by Congress before the end of the year.

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

Under the Senate bill that passed earlier this year, the department 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.

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 immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.

Obama announced his selection of Johnson more than a month after Napolitano left to lead the University of California system, and Republicans had questioned why he had waited so long.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) raised the issue after the Capitol complex was locked down earlier this month following a nearby police pursuit that led to the shooting death of the suspect.

Democrats praised Johnson’s selection while noting that the DHS has not had a confirmed secretary or deputy secretary.

“Mr. Johnson brings a wealth of experience from the Department of Defense, and I am eager to meet with him and discuss his vision for the Department of Homeland Security,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said.

“This nomination comes at a critical time for the agency and its mission because, for the past several months, the Department has been operating without a Senate-confirmed secretary or deputy secretary, and also has numerous other high-level vacancies.”

On Friday, Obama cited Johnson’s work on the administration’s counterterrorism policies, and said he was one of the leaders who “spoke eloquently about how we meet today’s threats in a way that are consistent with our values, including the rule of law.”

“He’s been there in the Situation Room at the table in moments of decision, working with leaders form a host of agencies to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction,” Obama said.

Johnson spoke briefly Friday, referencing his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, the terrorist attack that prompted the creation of the DHS.

“When that bright and beautiful day, a day something like this, was shattered by the largest terror attack on our homeland in history, I wandered streets of New York that day and wondered and asked: ‘What can I do?’” Johnson said. “Since then, I’ve tried to devote myself to answering that question.”

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