WASHINGTON (AP) — When the White House called some of the major U.S. law enforcement associations with a heads-up that President Barack Obama would nominate Jeh Johnson to run the Homeland Security Department, the response on the other end of the line was brief: Who?
The former Pentagon lawyer and longtime Obama supporter is not a familiar name throughout the 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. So, nominating Johnson to run the sprawling bureaucracy, created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, came as a surprise to many.
"I don't know him. And I want to get to know him," said Bart Johnson, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and a former Homeland Security official.
"I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup with the Marx Brothers," said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
By Friday afternoon, the White House had made their candidate available to some of the police executives for phone calls. And letters of support were promised two weeks after Obama announced his pick to run the cabinet level department. Getting this law enforcement support was critical for the White House, because the Homeland Security Department needs their cooperation for its mission to be carried out effectively.
The Homeland Security Department houses a large number of the federal government's law enforcement officers. Not only does it dole out billions of dollars in first responder grants to states each year, members of the department work side-by-side state and local law enforcement daily on counter-drug, counterterrorism, immigration, border security and cyber issues.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said he and other members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association spoke Friday with Johnson, who he didn't know before the phone call. After speaking with Johnson, Ramsey said the chiefs' concerns, including those about immigration and grant funding, were allayed. They were ready to publicly support the president's nominee.
Since Obama announced his pick Oct. 18, law enforcement associations were anxious to meet with Johnson to understand what he knows about the department and homeland security issues. Once that happened, they said they would decide whether to pen letters of support, as many of these groups have done for the three other secretaries who were well-known among law enforcement when they were named to the post.
Obama said he nominated Johnson because of his "deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States." He credited Johnson with helping design and implement policies to dismantle the core of the al-Qaida terror organization overseas and to repeal the ban on openly gay service members in the U.S. military.
Johnson had a two-year stint with the U.S. attorney's office in New York between 1989 and 1991, according to his law firm's website. He has defended the administration's targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas as well as the role of the U.S. spy court and crackdowns to keep government secrets secret. A multimillionaire lawyer, Johnson left the administration in 2012 as general counsel for the Defense Department and returned to private practice.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has threatened to block Obama's nominations in a dispute over last year's attack in Benghazi, Libya, putting Johnson's nomination in limbo for now.
But it's widely expected that Johnson will be confirmed by the Senate — even Graham has said he will ultimately vote for him — making Johnson the nation's fourth Homeland Security secretary. He would replace former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who left to head the University of California system. The department is responsible for protecting the president, preparing for and responding to disasters, enforcing immigration laws and securing air travel. Its missions include counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and cyber security.
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