Here are ten summary observations I took away from Wednesday’s Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Jeh Johnson’s nomination to lead DHS.
1. The hearing was low key. It’s as if even the Senate Committee is tired of homeland security and just wants someone to take it over so they can get on with other business. Senator McCain provided the only high energy moment. He insisted Johnson agree to achieving a “90% effective” metric for border security. McCain wanted a yes or no answer. Johnson said he needed to understand the issue better before he could commit to something like that.
2. Senator Levin said there are 2 million corporations created each year in this country. He said allowing states to approve who gets to form a corporation without checking who the “real” owners are behind those corporations is a problem. Levin is a primary sponsor of the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act. The bill would require states to identify who is behind the corporations they charter. Senator Carper noted most states are opposed to Levin’s proposal. Johnson again said he wants to understand the issue before he takes a position on it.
3. Johnson was asked how to strike the balance between interrogating someone to get information that potentially might stop a terrorist attack, and interrogating someone with the idea in mind of eventually prosecuting that person. He responded “There’s authority for a pre-Miranda national security interrogation. We need to codify that.”
4. Senator Paul asked “Does the 4th Amendment apply to my Visa [credit card] purchases?” That started a brief, mostly one way, conversation about the 4th amendment and what due process means. Paul, commenting on the Obama Administration’s approach to targeted killings: “Due process is not a bunch of good people sitting in a room discussing whether to kill someone.” I think Paul had the day’s most telegenic one-liners.
5. Johnson was asked what steps he’d take to make sure DHS works effectively with state and locals. His response suggested this is a new area for him. “I’ve been struck by the emphasis people up here [in Congress] and at DHS place on [state, local, private sector relationships]… and the attention … they want me to pay to it, and it’s pretty apparent to me that it’s part of the mission… I think I get that.” He mostly talked about law enforcement; I did not hear anything about fire, emergency management, public health, emergency medical, hospitals and the other non-law enforcement participants in the homeland security enterprise. Sensitivity to state and local issues in homeland security is something former governors (like Ridge and Napolitano) grasp. It’s not clear people who spent most of their career seeing the world through federal eyes actually do “get that.”
6. Senator Coburn asked Johnson if he agrees with the Obama Administration’s proposal to consolidate all DHS grants, and base awards on risk rather than spreading the money out across the nation. Johnson’s response suggests he has not thought much about this topic: “It’s an issue that a number of people have raised with me, how we dispense grant money; it’s taxpayer money…. In general the professionals who I’ve consulted over the past couple of weeks seem to feel that we need to move in the direction of a risk based approach to homeland security, and that probably entails focusing our grant money in the same direction as well. So I’d be inclined to agree with you if what you’re saying is we need to make efficient use of our taxpayer dollars for purposes of homeland security.” I believe DHS has been “moving in the direction of a risk based approach” for more than a decade.
7. Coburn asked Johnson about “broken travel” (i.e., when someone flies somewhere and then takes a train or bus and then connects somewhere else to fly again [h/t D.]). Coburn reviewed a few of Johnson’s statements about the need to monitor how some people travel, and asked “Can you state for this committee what role you envision for DHS in tracking the travel of US persons, at home or abroad, that are not on a suspicious list or on a high risk list?” Johnson acknowledged there are significant privacy and civil liberty concerns with travel, but also emphasized that “broken travel” is real. We have a problem with suspicious individuals laundering their travel, he said. That’s a fact. It’s a blind spot (for the United States).
8. Senator Coburn said he hoped Johnson will consider staying on through the next administration, “so that we don’t lose all this tremendous experience and gray hair, and have to re-train another leader.” And then he offered Johnson a large, white binder with what Coburn called “alternative views of homeland security collected over the past 6 years.” I would love to know what’s in the binder.
9. Johnson came across (to me) as a very competent, professional, largely uncontroversial, leader/manager. He believes protecting the American public is a core mission of the United States government. He seemed to know a lot about some homeland security and defense issues, and less – at least in public — about several other important areas in homeland security: such as the role of state and local participants, grant programs, border security and immigration. I did not get the sense he had a unique vision for DHS. When asked about his vision for DHS Johnson spoke about focusing on terrorism, immigration, cyber security, and getting off the GAO “high risk” list. Not an especially inspiring vision, but maybe DHS needs competent management more than it needs inspiration.
10. Johnson — who, if confirmed, would be the 17th in the presidential line of succession — closed his testimony predicting that at the end of his DHS tenure, the senate committee will say “Johnson was somebody that worked well with us in a bipartisan fashion.”