Jeh Johnson

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The Honorable
Jeh Johnson
Jeh Johnson official DHS portrait.jpg
4th United States Secretary of Homeland Security
Assumed office
December 23, 2013
President Barack Obama
Deputy Alejandro Mayorkas
Preceded by Rand Beers (acting)
Personal details
Born Jeh Charles Johnson
(1957-09-11) September 11, 1957 (age 58)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Dr. Susan Maureen DiMarco (m. 1994–present)
Children Natalie Johnson
Jeh Charles Johnson, Jr.
Alma mater Morehouse College
Columbia Law School

Jeh Charles Johnson (born September 11, 1957)[1] is an American civil and criminal trial lawyer, and the current United States Secretary of Homeland Security. He was the General Counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012 during the first Obama Administration. Johnson is a graduate of Morehouse College (B.A.) and Columbia Law School (J.D.), and is the grandson of sociologist and Fisk University president Dr. Charles S. Johnson.

Johnson's first name (pronounced "Jay") is taken from a Liberian chief, who reportedly saved his grandfather’s life while Dr. Johnson was on a League of Nations mission to Liberia in 1930.[2]


Johnson served as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1989 to 1991. From 1998 to 2001, he was General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force under President Bill Clinton.[3] Prior to his appointment as General Counsel of the Department of Defense, Johnson was a partner at the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, in which he was the first African American elected partner and to which he returned after his four years at the Defense Department.[4] He was elected a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2004.[3]

On January 8, 2009, he was named by President Barack Obama to be General Counsel for the Defense Department.[5] In December 2012, he resigned this position effective at the end of the year to return to private practice.[6]

Ten months later, on October 18, 2013, Johnson was nominated by President Obama to be Secretary of Homeland Security.[7]


Johnson was born in New York City, the son of Norma (Edelin), who worked for Planned Parenthood, and Jeh Vincent Johnson, an architect.[8][9]

On March 18, 1994, Johnson married Susan Maureen DiMarco, a dentist, at Corpus Christi Church (New York City).[8] The pair grew up across the street from each other in Wappingers Falls, NY.[10] They have two children, Natalie Johnson and Jeh Charles Johnson, Jr. [11]

Federal prosecutor[edit]

Johnson began as an associate at Paul, Weiss in November of 1984. In 1989 he left to serve as an assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, a position he held until the end of 1991. In that position, Johnson prosecuted public corruption cases.

Air Force General Counsel[edit]

Johnson returned to Paul, Weiss in 1992 and was elected partner at the firm in 1994. In 1998, Johnson was appointed General Counsel of the Air Force by President Bill Clinton after confirmation by the U.S. Senate. As General Counsel, Johnson was the senior legal official in the Air Force and Governor of Wake Island, in the Pacific Ocean.[12] His tenure coincided with Operation Allied Force in 1999. He was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for his efforts.[3]

Private practice[edit]

After his service in the Clinton administration, Johnson returned to Paul, Weiss in 2001, where he was an active trial lawyer of large commercial cases.[3]

Johnson was a member of the Executive Committee of the New York City Bar Association. From 2001 to 2004, he served as chairman of the City Bar’s Judiciary Committee, which rates and approves all federal, state and local judges in New York City. In 2007, Johnson was nominated by the New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination to be Chief Judge of New York[13] though the incumbent, Judith Kaye, was ultimately reappointed by former Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Democratic Party involvement[edit]

Johnson was active in Democratic Party politics, as a fundraiser and adviser to presidential campaigns. Johnson served as special counsel to John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign,[14] and was an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, active as a foreign policy adviser and as a member of his national finance committee.[15][16]

General Counsel of the Department of Defense[edit]

Johnson swears in Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense.

On January 8, 2009, President-elect Barack Obama announced Johnson's nomination as Department of Defense General Counsel.[17] On February 9, 2009, he was confirmed by the Senate.[18]

As General Counsel of the Defense Department, Johnson was a major player in certain key priorities of the Obama Administration, and he is considered one of the legal architects of the U.S. military's current counterterrorism policies. In 2009, Johnson was heavily involved in the reform of military commissions, and testified before Congress numerous times in support of the Military Commissions Act of 2009.[19] In February 2010, the Secretary of Defense appointed Johnson to co-chair a working group, along with Army General Carter Ham, to study the potential impact of a repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. In November 2010, following an extensive study, Johnson and General Ham reported that the risk to overall military effectiveness of a repeal would be low. The report was hailed as a thorough and objective analysis.[20] The Washington Post editorial page wrote:

The report is remarkable not just for its conclusions but for its honest, thorough and respectful handling of a delicate subject. It offers a clear-eyed, careful, conservative approach to implementing policy change. It doesn't play down the hurdles or denigrate the opposition. It is, in short, a document to be taken seriously, especially by those who may have lingering doubts about allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.[21]

In August 2010, Johnson was part of the public dialogue over the WikiLeaks release of classified Pentagon documents known as the Afghan War Diary. "The Department of Defense will not negotiate some 'minimized' or 'sanitized' version of a release by WikiLeaks of additional U.S. government classified documents," he wrote in a letter to Timothy J. Matusheski, a lawyer representing the online whistle-blowing organization. In August 2012, Johnson also wrote to the former Navy SEAL who authored the book No Easy Day, a memoir by a Navy SEAL who participated in the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and warned him of his material breach of his non-disclosure agreements with the Department of Defense regarding classified information.[22]

In January 2011, Johnson provoked controversy when, according to a Department of Defense news story, he asserted in a speech at the Pentagon that deceased civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., would have supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite King's outspoken opposition to American interventionism during his lifetime.[23] Johnson argued that American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq were playing the role of the Good Samaritan, consistent with King's beliefs, and that they were fighting to establish the peace for which King hoped.[24][25] Jeremy Scahill of called Johnson's remarks "one of the most despicable attempts at revisionist use of Martin Luther King Jr. I've ever seen," while Justin Elliott (also of argued that based on Dr. King's opposition to the Vietnam War, he would likely have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the covert wars in Pakistan and Yemen.[26] Former assistant U.S. attorney Cynthia Kouril has defended Johnson's remarks, arguing in her blog that his speech has been misinterpreted.[27]

In a February 2011, speech to the New York City Bar Association, Johnson "acknowledged the concerns raised" about the detention of alleged WikiLeaks source Private Bradley Manning and "stated that he had personally traveled to Quantico to conduct an investigation", according to human rights attorney and journalist Scott Horton. Horton wrote that "Johnson was remarkably unforthcoming about what he discovered and what conclusions he drew from his visit."[28]

Johnson's tenure as General Counsel was also notable for several high-profile speeches he gave on national security. In a speech he delivered at the Heritage Foundation in October 2011, Johnson warned against "over-militarizing" the U.S. government's approach to counterterrorism: "There is risk in permitting and expecting the U.S. military to extend its powerful reach into areas traditionally reserved for civilian law enforcement in this country." [29] At a speech at Yale Law School in February 2012, Johnson defended "targeted killings",[30] but also stated:

[A]s a student of history I believe that those who govern today must ask ourselves how we will be judged 10, 20 or 50 years from now. Our applications of law must stand the test of time, because, over the passage of time, what we find tolerable today may be condemned in the permanent pages of history tomorrow.

Finally, at the Oxford Union in November 2012, shortly before his resignation, Johnson delivered a widely noted address entitled "The conflict against al Qaeda and its affiliates: how will it end?" in which he predicted a "tipping point" at which the U.S. government's efforts against al Qaeda should no longer be considered an armed conflict, but a more traditional law enforcement effort against individual terrorists. Johnson stated:

"War" must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. War permits one man—if he is a "privileged belligerent," consistent with the laws of war—to kill another. War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the "new normal." Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives.

The Oxford Union speech received widespread press attention,[31] and editorial acclaim as the first such statement coming from an Obama administration official.[32]

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said that Johnson "proved to be the finest lawyer I ever worked with in government—a straightforward, plain-speaking man of great integrity, with common sense to burn and a good sense of humor" and that he "trusted and respected him like no other lawyer I had ever worked with."[33]

Department of Homeland Security[edit]

Johnson was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the fourth U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security in October 2013, and was subsequently confirmed on December 16, 2013, by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 78–16.[34] He was sworn in on December 23, 2013.[35] The Washington Post reported "Johnson, an African-American, would bring further racial diversity to Obama's Cabinet."

When Johnson entered office one of his top priorities was to fill all of the high level vacancies. By April 2015 the President had appointed and the Senate confirmed all but one of Johnson's senior leader positions.[36] One of Johnson's first major efforts as Secretary was his Unity of Effort initiative to set the conditions for the Department to operate in a more unified fashion and develop a culture that recognizes and responds adequately to the diverse challenges the Department of Homeland Security faces.[37]

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson

In the spring and summer of 2014 the southern border of the United States experienced a large influx of immigrants, many of whom were children, coming from Central America.[38] Secretary Johnson and his Department worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate a response to address the immigrants' needs. In June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services asylum officers were reassigned to conduct credible fear interviews, while prioritizing the cases of recently apprehended unaccompanied children, adults with children, and other recent border crossers.[39] At the same time, Secretary Johnson asked for the support of Congress to increase border security and prevent more spikes like this from happening again.[40] After the flow of immigrant children to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security established three family residential centers, and they immediately became the focus of much controversy.[41] The ACLU has compared them to Japanese internment camps and in July of 2015 a U.S. District Court Judge in California ordered that the family residential centers comply with a 1997 settlement concerning the detention of children.[42]

During the summer and fall of 2014, Secretary Johnson oversaw the Department of Homeland Security's response to the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa.[43] The Ebola epidemic was the largest in history, and impacted multiple West African countries. In response, the Department of Homeland Security developed policies, procedures and protocols to identify travelers for screening who could have been potentially infected to minimize the risk to the traveling public.[44] This response was chosen by the Department over limiting travel visas to the United States, which Secretary Johnson recognized would have been a mistake given the leadership position of the U.S. and likelihood of influencing other countries to take the same action.[45]

After the House of Representatives failed to act on S. 744, Secretary Johnson and President Obama issued ten new executive actions on November 20, 2014 to address the 11 million undocumented individuals in the United States.[46] These actions included, among others, a new Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Strategy, a revision of removal priorities to focus on criminals and national security threats, the end to the Secure Communities program replaced by a new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and the extension of DACA to Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).[47] Johnson is said to have worked heavily on drafting the executive actions at the behest of the President.[48]

In a 60 Minutes profile of Secretary Johnson that aired in April 2015, it was stated: "[s]o far he's gotten high marks, even from the Republicans in Congress. When he came on board, nearly half the senior management jobs were vacant; he's filled all but one; he's boosted morale; and improved the coordination and dissemination of threat information throughout the government."[49]

In May of 2015, Secretary Johnson issued reforms that helped minimize detention time for families in residential centers.[50] In June, one year after the increase of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border, Secretary Johnson committed publicly to continually evaluating the policy of family residential centers.[51] The Secretary made personal visits to the family residential centers and spoke with dozens of Central American mothers at the facilities before issuing additional substantial changes to the Department's detention practices with respect to families with children.[52] One major change included releasing families who establish eligibility for asylum or other relief under the law.[53]

During his service Secretary Johnson has given several high profile speeches. On June 8th, 2015 he gave a speech at Rice University's James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy.[54] He focused on the Department of Homeland Security's border security efforts, describing the trends in border crossers decreasing over the past year, and the Obama administration's executive actions issued to address the millions of hard working undocumented immigrants in America.[55] In July he presented the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University.[56] He warned of the evolving terrorist threat, from terrorist group trained and directed attacks to terrorist group inspired attacks, and described the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to keep Americans safe.[57]

Secretary Johnson also gave the 56th Green Lecture at Westminster College, the same place where Winston Churchill gave the "Iron Curtain" speech. In his Green Lecture, Secretary Johnson emphasized the use of history as an important tool in shaping the decisions of those in public office.[56] Specifically, he discussed the need to be wary of government overreach when responding to threats and crisis, and how it is during these moments when the U.S. government must work its hardest to preserve the values it cherishes.[56] Johnson stated:

"We can erect more walls, install more screening devices, and make everybody suspicious of each other, but we should not do so at the cost of who we are as a Nation of people who cherish our privacy, our religions, our freedom to speak, travel and associate, and who celebrate our diversity and our immigrant heritage. In the final analysis, these are the things that constitute our greatest strengths as a Nation."[56]


  1. ^ Nominations before the Senate Armed Services Committee, First Session, 111th Congress. S. Hrg. 111-362.
  2. ^ Johnson, Charles S., Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic Transaction Books (1987), page 1xxiii fn 171
  3. ^ a b c d Jeh Johnson Biography Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. Retrieved on March 13, 2008
  4. ^ Lentz, Philip (1996). "Jeh Johnson – 1996 40 Under 40 – Crain’s New York Business Rising Stars". Crain’s New York Business, Retrieved on March 13, 2008
  5. ^ "Obama names four to top Pentagon posts". Agence France-Presse. January 8, 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2009. [dead link]
  6. ^ Baldor, Lolita C. "Jeh Johnson, Pentagon's Top Lawyer, Resigns" The Huffington Post, December 6, 2012
  7. ^ Schmidt, Michael S.; Savage, Charlie (2013-10-17). "Former Pentagon Official to Be Chosen as Homeland Security Chief". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-10-14. 
  8. ^ a b "Weddings; Jeh C. Johnson and Susan DiMarco". New York Times. March 20, 1994. Retrieved February 22, 2015. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Smith Brady, Lois (April 10, 1994). "Vows; Jeh Johnson and Susan DiMarco". New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2015. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Cahoon, Ben M. (2000). "Wake Island - Governors (from 1972, U.S. Air Force General Counsels in Washington, D.C.)". World Statesmen. Retrieved May 11, 2009. 1998 - 2001 Jeh Charles Johnson 
  13. ^ John Caher, "Kaye Heads List of Candidates For Court of Appeals' Top Slot", The New York Law Journal, January 18, 2007
  14. ^ Konigsberg, Eric, "In Clinton’s Backyard, It’s Open Season as an Obama Fund-Raiser Lines Up Donors", The New York Times, February 24, 2007. Retrieved on March 13, 2008.
  15. ^ Horowitz, Jason, "Clinton Campaign Gets In Gloat Mode With $27 Million", The New York Observer, October 10, 2007. Retrieved on April 14, 2008.
  16. ^ Horowitz,Jason, "The Best Place for the Rule of Law", The Boston Globe, April 12, 2008. Retrieved on April 14, 2008.
  17. ^ Tyson, Ann Scott, "Obama Selects 4 More Senior Defense Officials", The Washington Post, January 9, 2009.
  18. ^ U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records Home > Nominations > Nominations Confirmed (Civilian)
  19. ^ Editorial, "Undoing the Damage," The New York Times, July 12, 2009
  20. ^ Ed O'Keefe and Craig Whitlock, "'Don't Ask' opponents get a boost, The Washington Post, December 1, 2010.
  21. ^ Editorial, "Ready for Change," The Washington Post, December 1, 2010.
  22. ^ Craig Whitlock, "Author of bin Laden book is warned," The Washington Post, August 31, 2012.
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Pentagon Official: King Would Support Iraq, Afghan Wars", by Amanda Terkel, Huffington Post, January 14, 2011. Retrieved December 1, 2012.
  25. ^ "Dr. Jeh Johnson's MLK Day Speech at the Pentagon". Retrieved December 1, 2012.
  26. ^ "Obama official: MLK would love our wars!", by Justin Elliott,, January 13, 2011. Retrieved December 1, 2012.
  27. ^ "The Problem is, He Never Said That: The Saga of the DoD MLK Day Speech,"
  28. ^ Horton, Scott (March 7, 2011) Inhumanity at Quantico, Harper's Magazine
  29. ^ Peter Finn, "Pentagon lawyer warns against over-militarizing anti-terror fight," The Washington Post, October 19, 2011.
  30. ^ "Top Pentagon Lawyer Defends Targeted Killings," The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2012.
  31. ^ Julian Barnes, "Pentagon Lawyer Looks Post Terror, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2012; Charlie Savage, Pentagon Counsel Speaks of Post-Qaeda Challenges," The New York Times, December 1, 2012; Barney Henderson, "Al-Qaeda war nearing tipping point, says US," The Daily Telegraph, Dec 1, 2012; Nick Hopkins, "War on al-Qaida drawing to a close, says Obama lawyer," the Guardian, Dec 1, 2012; Daniel Klaidman, "Will Obama End the War on Terror," Newsweek magazine, Dec 24, 2012.
  32. ^ See, e.g., Fareed Zakaria, "Time to terminate the war on terror," Washington Post op-ed, December 6, 2012.
  33. ^ Duty by Robert M. Gates, pp. 283 and 332 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
  34. ^ Jeh Johnson OK’d for Homeland Security
  35. ^ Secretary Jeh Johnson | Homeland Security
  36. ^ "Unity of Effort: One Year Later | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-20. 
  37. ^ "Unity of Effort: One Year Later | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-20. 
  38. ^ "Statement by Secretary Johnson About the Situation Along the Southwest Border | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  39. ^ "Statement by Secretary Johnson About the Situation Along the Southwest Border | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  40. ^ "Statement by Secretary Johnson About the Situation Along the Southwest Border | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  41. ^ "I Know an American 'Internment' Camp When I See One". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  42. ^ "I Know an American 'Internment' Camp When I See One". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  43. ^ "Ebola Response | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  44. ^ "Ebola Response | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  45. ^ "Remarks By Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson On “Achieving Our Homeland Security While Preserving Our Values And Our Liberty” At Westminster College – As Delivered". Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved September 16, 2015. 
  46. ^ "Immigration Action | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  47. ^ "Immigration Action | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  48. ^ "How Obama got here". POLITICO. Retrieved 2015-10-14. 
  49. ^ "Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on 60 Minutes". Retrieved 2015-10-14. 
  50. ^ "Statement By Secretary Jeh C. Johnson On Family Residential Centers | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  51. ^ "Statement By Secretary Jeh C. Johnson On Family Residential Centers | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  52. ^ "Statement By Secretary Jeh C. Johnson On Family Residential Centers | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  53. ^ "Statement By Secretary Jeh C. Johnson On Family Residential Centers | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  54. ^ "Remarks by Secretary Johnson on "Immigration: Perception versus Reality" | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  55. ^ "Remarks by Secretary Johnson on "Immigration: Perception versus Reality" | Homeland Security". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  56. ^ a b c d Johnson, Jeh (September 16, 2015). "Remarks By Secretary Of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson On “Achieving Our Homeland Security While Preserving Our Values And Our Liberty” At Westminster College – As Delivered". DHS. 
  57. ^ "Remarks By Secretary Of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson On “The New Realities Of Homeland Security” As Part Of The Landon Lecture Series On Public Issues – As Prepared For Delivery". 

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