Jeh Johnson, President Obama's choice to be the Department of Homeland Security secretary, was working for a law firm in New York City 12 years ago when two airliners smashed into the twin towers.
On that tragic morning, which fell on his birthday, Johnson said he wandered the smoke-filled streets of Manhattan wondering how he could help.
“Since then, I've tried to devote myself to answering that question,” he said in October at the White House Rose Garden as Obama announced Johnson's nomination to head DHS.
As the Pentagon's top lawyer during Obama’s first term, Johnson, 56, played a key role behind the scenes on many national-security debates.
He advised the president and two defense secretaries on drone policy, the fate of Guantanamo Bay, the Wikileaks fallout, and the legal issues surrounding the Osama bin Laden raid. Johnson also co-wrote a report on gays openly serving in the military, and became a forceful advocate for the eventual repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.”
When nominating Johnson to replace former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who left in December, Obama touted his trusted advice. “He's been there in the Situation Room at the table in moments of decision,” said the president.
At the Pentagon, Johnson's work was so sensitive that his office was SCIF, a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility” with thick walls and jamming technology to prevent eavesdropping. But in leading DHS, Johnson will be emerging from the relative anonymity of the Pentagon and the Situation Room into a harsh public spotlight.
Lawmakers agree DHS needs a high profile shake-up and the incoming secretary must address border security, repair the image of the Transportation Security Administration and tackle new cyber threats.
If Johnson hopes to reform the sprawling department, he must work in a much more visible role, where the public is involved in the contentious and politically-charged debates.
“The department still does not function as well as it should,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who formerly chaired the Homeland Security committee. “He has a lot of information management challenges ahead of him.”
Johnson is expected to win Senate confirmation, but some of his decisions at the Defense Department are inviting extra scrutiny.
Some senators worry Johnson will accelerate DHS's efforts to build a fleet of non-lethal, domestic drones, citing his work expanding the legal authority for drone operations. In a 2012 speech at Yale Law School, Johnson defended strikes targeting U.S. citizens abroad -- a stand that makes Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., uneasy.
At DHS, Johnson would also be at the center of the immigration debate, and lawmakers are pressing for his views on border security.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was impressed with Johnson's tenure at the Pentagon but was stunned when the nominee said during his confirmation hearing that he didn't know if he could provide key border-security metrics.
McCain placed a hold on Johnson's confirmation and said he can't vote in favor of his nomination. “How could I go back home and tell the people of Southern Arizona, ‘Oh by the way, [Johnson] wouldn't tell me what it takes to secure your lives,’ because right now at night they have people going across their property who are trafficking drugs,” McCain told the Washington Examiner.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., says his first priority in December is getting Johnson confirmed, along with a leadership team to fill the many DHS vacancies.
“It's like executive Swiss cheese over there,” he remarked.
Johnson’s supporters say he has a long and impressive legal resume and a pedigree perfect for serving in the first black president's cabinet. Johnson is the nephew of a Tuskegee airman, and named after a Liberian chief who saved the life of his grandfather.
After graduating from Morehouse College and Columbia Law School, Johnson served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York between 1989 and 1991, returning to the private sector in the mid-90s and then serving as general counsel of the Air Force from 1998 to early 2001.
New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., considers Johnson a friend and adviser and recently invited him to speak to his staff on efforts to interrupt terrorist financing operations. “I sought Jeh's counsel, and I wanted our senior staff to get his perspective,” Vance said, praising his experience.
Johnson is married to an accomplished dentist, and one of his two sons goes to Occidental College, which Obama also attended before transferring to Columbia University.
While Republicans want more answers on immigration, many say they've been impressed enough to give Johnson a chance to run the department.
“My choice would have been to bring somebody from private industry that knows how to run a big organization, but I'm not the president,” said Homeland Security Ranking Member Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
“This is his nominee. He's as good as we're going to get, and I think he understands the significant, serious problems of homeland security.”