WASHINGTON — Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel who established the legal frameworks for lethal drone strikes and for allowing gays to serve openly in the military, will be nominated by President Obama to be the next secretary of Homeland Security, according to administration officials.
Johnson, 56, was an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential ambitions and an advisor to his campaign. He contributed more than $33,000 in 2008 to Obama's fundraising committees.
Johnson, who is African American, would join two other black members of the president's Cabinet, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. But Holder is not expected to stay at the Justice Department through Obama's second term, and Johnson's confirmation might make it politically easier for Holder to leave.
As general counsel at the Defense Department, Johnson managed more than 10,000 lawyers from 2009 to 2012 before returning to work at a white-shoe law firm in New York — Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.
If confirmed in the new post, he would face the gargantuan task of managing 240,000 employees in a department that was cobbled together in the aftermath of Sept. 11 from 22 disparate agencies with distinct cultures and histories.
Despite some strides by previous secretaries at knitting together the sprawling department, Homeland Security has been repeatedly criticized by its inspector general for weak management and patterns of wasteful spending.
By nominating Johnson, Obama is elevating a person who was intimately involved in making decisions about the targeted killings of suspected Al Qaeda members. Johnson personally made legal determinations on purported terrorists that the military planned to kill, arrayed before him in files known inside the Pentagon as "baseball cards," according to former U.S. officials.
His nomination could put pressure on the White House to shed more light on the secret program. When the Senate considered John Brennan's nomination for CIA director in March, members of Congress demanded that Obama reveal how the administration made its decisions on whom to kill.
In internal policy dogfights over the targeted killing policy, Johnson argued strongly for a more expansive view of who could be considered a target, officials said. He has said publicly that the U.S. should no longer consider itself in a traditional armed conflict against Al Qaeda and that Congress should consider what new authorities American counter-terrorism operations might need.
"We're not just talking about drone strikes. We're talking about ability to conduct national security interrogations, pre-Miranda, and other types of things that domestic law enforcement, that the intelligence community, should have to go forward with the future threats," Johnson said in a panel at the Aspen Security Forum in July.
Johnson also acknowledged during the panel that being involved in life-and-death decisions at the Pentagon weighed on him.
"Anytime I or any other national security official has to sign off on something that leads to lethal force, that should leave you with a heavy heart. Period. Irrespective of who the objective is," Johnson said.
The plan to nominate Johnson came in for some immediate criticism from Republicans. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions expressed concern that Johnson didn't have enough experience as a "proven manager" to run such a large agency.
"DHS is the most mismanaged department in the federal government," Sessions said in a statement. "It would appear that the president plans to nominate a loyalist and fundraiser to this post. This is deeply concerning."
The White House also considered nominating New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, and Lisa Monaco, Obama's homeland security aide on the National Security Council.
Christi Parsons, David S. Cloud and Becca Clemons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.