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Politics & Government

Obama's Choice For Homeland Security Chief Testifies In Senate


President Obama's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security faced some tough questioning today about the nation's borders. During his confirmation hearing, Jeh Johnson told the Senate panel his top priority was filling some of the many vacancies at the sprawling agency. He would not answer questions about how the department measures border security, leading one Republican senator to say he won't support Johnson until he does.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Even on a good day, serving as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is a hard job, Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Tom Carper told Jeh Johnson this morning. A few hours later, Johnson had a better appreciation of just how hard as he tried to placate irritated Republicans and faced questions on everything from the safety of TSA agents to the privacy of Americans travelling overseas.

The 56-year-old Johnson told the panel he understands the world has changed since he was child. He described a family photo of him and his sister next to their father's car in the mid '60s.

JEH JOHNSON: The most striking thing about the photo is that our car is parked just a few feet away from the steps to the eastern front of the Capitol building. I look at the photo today and realize that it captures a period in our history that is probably lost in my lifetime and perhaps forever.

NAYLOR: Homeland Security is a sprawling department made up of 22 agencies, many with little in common. Employee morale is among the lowest of any Cabinet department, and by some estimates 40 percent of the top level posts are either unfilled or held by acting administrators. Johnson said his top priority would be to fill those positions.

Johnson would be the fourth Homeland Security secretary. He served as the chief council at the Department of Defense where he handled legal questions surrounding drone strikes and helped end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Unlike his predecessor, Janet Napolitano who was governor of Arizona, he's had little experience with border and immigration issues. So Johnson was reluctant when Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona pressed him over how the administration measures the security of the U.S. border with Mexico. And McCain was unforgiving.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: As much as I admire and appreciate you, unless you can tell me that you will give them the information which this committee has the right to have, I cannot support your nomination.

JOHNSON: I am inclined - I am really...

MCCAIN: I'm not asking for an...

JOHNSON: ...(unintelligible) give you what you need, sir.

MCCAIN: So you - let the record show, you will not give a yes or no answer, therefore I will not support your nomination until I get a yes answer.

NAYLOR: On another issue, Johnson was asked about what steps should be taken to protect TSA officers after the killing this month of a TSA screener at the Los Angeles airport.

JOHNSON: I don't know that the answer is screening everybody that comes into an airport. That would be a very long line. But I think we need to look at better ensuring their safety.

NAYLOR: Johnson is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, despite McCain's opposition, but it's unclear how soon there will be a vote. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.