Jeh Charles Johnson (born September 11, 1957) is an American civil, criminal trial lawyer, and 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 grandson of noted sociologist and Fisk University president Dr. Charles S. Johnson. Barack Obama will nominate him to the post of Secretary of Homeland Security in October 2013.
Johnson served as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1989-1991. From 1998-2001, he was General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force under President Bill Clinton. 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 of which he was the first African American to be elected to that firm’s partnership and to which he returned after his four years at the Defense Department. He was elected a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2004.
On January 8, 2009, he was named by President Barack Obama to be General Counsel for the Defense Department. In December 2012, he resigned this position effective at the end of the year to return to private practice.
Johnson began his legal career at Paul, Weiss in the mid-1980s. In 1989 he left to serve as an Assistant United States Attorney]] in the Southern District of New York, a position he held until 1991. In that position, Johnson prosecuted public corruption cases.
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. His tenure coincided with Operation Allied Force in 1999. He was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for his efforts.
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.
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 though the incumbent, Judith Kaye, was ultimately reappointed by former Governor Eliot Spitzer.
Johnson is 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, 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.
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. 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. 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.”
In August 2010, Johnson was part of the public dialogue over the Wikileaks release of classified Pentagon documents known as the Afghan War Diary or The War Logs. “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 pro bono. In August 2012, Johnson also wrote to the former Navy seal who authored the book “No Easy Day” and warned him of his material breach of his non-disclosure agreements with the Department of Defense.
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. Johnson argued that American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq were playing the role of the Good Samaritan, consistent with Martin Luther King Jr.'s beliefs, and that they were fighting to establish the peace for which Dr. King hoped.Jeremy Scahill 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 of Salon.com 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. Cynthia Kouril has defended Johnson's remarks, arguing in her blog that his speech has been misinterpreted.
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." Human rights attorney and journalist Scott Horton wrote that "Johnson was remarkably unforthcoming about what he discovered and what conclusions he drew from his visit."
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.”  At a speech at Yale Law School in February 2012, Johnson defended “targeted killings,” 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 England 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.”
On October 17, 2013, President Obama nominated Johnson to be U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. The Washington Post reported "Johnson, an African-American, would bring further racial diversity to Obama's Cabinet. The first black U.S. president has been criticized for having a high number of white men in top Cabinet roles."