On Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Jeh Johnson to be the fourth head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation in 2002, by a vote of 78-16.
President Obama’s nominee—who faced tough confirmation questions from a group of Republican Senators who represent border states concerned about spillover violence from gang violence in Mexico—is expected to be sworn in quickly in order to try and right an institution seen by some as unfocused and culturally adrift.
In a statement Thursday evening, president Obama said that “Johnson has a deep understanding of the threats we face and a proven ability to work across agencies and complex organizations to keep America secure.”
The president added that as the Pentagon’s top lawyer who worked with the White House on the legal justifications for deadly drone strikes on targets that included American citizens overseas, “Jeh has been a critical member of my national security team, and he helped to shape some of our most successful national security policies and strategies.”
Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote to confirm Johnson, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) made the case for his approval, saying that “ten years after its creation, DHS still lacks a strong sense of cohesion,” and that senior leadership positions at the department have been allowed to remain vacant for too long.
The top four positions at DHS — secretary, deputy secretary, chief of staff and the executive secretariat — are all held by acting directors, and 16 other top leadership posts remain vacant or staffed temporarily.
The biggest leadership gaps are in Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Office of Cybersecurity.
But DHS faces other challenges more complex than finding qualified candidates to run its subordinate agencies.
More than 250,000 DHS employees are spread out across 22 agencies that do everything from protecting the nation’s land and sea borders to cleaning up after natural disasters to dealing with illegal immigration.
That these tasks are carried out by a variety of agencies with their own long-standing cultures that have been thrust under the DHS banner mean that there have been cultural frictions in DHS. So chief among Johnson’s priorities will be to try and create a single departmental identity.
“This has been a challenge ever since the department was created,” Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations told Defense News recently. “But it continues to be a department dominated by its powerful components with a very weak policy-planning function at the headquarters level.”
He called the task of creating a single identity “DHS’ Goldwater-Nichols problem — it took decades to create a single coherent agency out of the Pentagon. The DHS isn’t there yet.”
But Johnson does have management experience. After he was confirmed, Sen. Caper released a statement saying that in his time at the Pentagon, Johnson “was a major player in the management team that ran the Defense Department, where he provided key advice to two exceptional Defense Secretaries – Bob Gates and Leon Panetta – giving him invaluable experience for the huge task to which he has been nominated.”