US President Barack Obama on Friday nominated the Pentagon’s former top lawyer to head the Department of Homeland Security, saying that Jeh Johnson “has a deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States.” If approved by the Senate, Mr. Jeh (pronounced Jay) Johnson will replace Janet Napolitano, who resigned in July to head up California’s prestigious public university system.

Homeland Security, set up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, coordinates the work of 22 agencies with a 240,000-strong workforce. It is responsible for everything from anti-terrorism to cyber security to border control.

From 2009 to 2012, Mr. Johnson, 56, was involved in some of the most controversial defence issues in recent years — from finding legal justification for drone attacks to removing barriers for gays in the military.

Mr. Obama said Mr. Johnson had been a “critical member of my national security team” since he took office in 2009, and had helped design and implement many policies that dismantled the core of al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan.

A key part of that dismantling has been the lethal use of drones in Pakistan’s so-called tribal areas.

Mr. Obama saluted Mr. Johnson for his insistence on meeting terrorist threats “in a way that are consistent with our values including the rule of law.” According to the Washington Post, Mr. Johnson was involved in one of the most controversial questions about the use of a drone to kill U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, in 2011.

Mr. Johnson and others concluded that the U.S. government had the authority to carry out the strike.

The summary killing of an American citizen without arrest, trial or conviction stirred up controversy from the time Mr. Obama put al-Awlaki on a kill list in 2010, and it continues to ripple through discussion about drones.

Mr. Johnson, along with Army General Carter Ham, carried out an impact study on allowing homosexuals in the military to come out of the closet — a report that Congress used in overturning the 18-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law in 2011.

Mr. Obama said that because the law was repealed, “America and our military are stronger.” Mr. Johnson had served in the Pentagon prior to 2009 and worked as a federal prosecutor between stints in private practice. In January, he started working with one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

“I was not looking for this opportunity. I had left government at the end of last year and was settling back into private life and private law practice,” Mr. Johnson said.

“But when I received the call, I could not refuse it,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson, an early supporter of Obama’s bid for the presidency in 2008, recalled that he was in New York on the day of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001 — which also happened to be his birthday.

He said he had wandered the chaotic streets of New York City that day asking himself what he could do.

“Since then, I have tried to devote myself to a answering that question,” he said.

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