President Obama’s pick to head the sprawling, troubled Department of Homeland Security may face tough questioning when he appears for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. But if his nomination is derailed or delayed, it is almost certain to be by an unrelated dispute between a GOP senator and the administration.
Jeh C. Johnson, who previously served Mr. Obama as the Pentagon’s top lawyer, appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee as the department he hopes to lead totters into its third month without a permanent secretary or deputy, and with more than a dozen other senior positions vacant, some of them for years.
These vacancies make the Department of Homeland Security an example of “executive branch Swiss cheese,” Sen. Thomas Carper, Delaware Democrat and committee chairman will say at the hearing, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Washington Times.
“Ten years after its creation, [the department] still lacks strong cohesion and a strong sense of team,” Mr. Carper plans to tell Mr. Johnson.
“Even on a good day, being [homeland security] secretary is a really hard job,” the chairman will add.
Homeland Security, hurriedly stitched together in the wake of 9-11 like a bureaucratic Frankenstein’s creature, consists of 22 agencies previously housed all over the federal government. Their missions range from inspecting agricultural imports for pests and disease, to hurricane and disaster response, by way of aviation and border security.
With 216,000 employees, it is the third-largest federal department, according to the White House website, and is consistently ranked by staff surveys as one of the worst places to work in the U.S. government.
Mr. Carper plans to praise Mr. Johnson’s work as Pentagon general counsel, noting that “there is perhaps no better place to learn how to manage a complex national security bureaucracy than at the Department of Defense.”
The senator will also highlight bipartisan support for the nominee, from Bush administration officials like former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
The Times has seen letters to the committee supporting Mr. Johnson’s nomination from both the secretaries of defense for whom he worked, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta; and from all three of his predecessors at Homeland Security — Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet A. Napolitano.
Some conservatives have criticized his record at the Pentagon, where he oversaw the unsuccessful effort to close Guantanamo and the successful introduction of military service by openly gay men and women.
Other critics have cited his role as a fundraiser for Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, for which he bundled fellow lawyers’ contributions, as evidence that he is a political creature rather than the kind of security professional the job really requires.
Republicans on the committee declined to comment ahead of the hearing, but they have already taken aim at several of the department’s policy failures and Mr. Johnson may face some tough questioning.
For instance, a bipartisan subcommittee staff investigation during the last congress revealed severe problems with the network of homeland security fusion centers around the country — problems the department had tried to hide from Congress.
In the wake of the Nov. 1 fatal shooting of Transportation Security Administration officer Gerardo Hernandez, there may be questions raised about airport security.
Mr. Johnson may also be pressed on surveillance issues. Homeland security, which boasts the largest number of federal law enforcement agents of any U.S. government department, also operates the largest domestic U.S. fleet of the controversial remotely piloted aircraft known as drones.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses the aircraft, based in New Mexico, to patrol the skies above the south-western border, looking for illegal cargo or other contraband. But there is widespread concern, including from libertarian conservatives like committee member Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, about the growing use of drones for domestic surveillance.
Looming over the hearing will be the entwined issues of immigration reform and border security.
Supporters tout Mr. Johnson’s law-and-order credentials — he was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York in the early 1990’s before President Clinton tapped him as general counsel of the U.S. Air Force.
Burt some conservatives see his immigration-related bona fides as limited, with at least one controversial case to his name.
In 1991, he prosecuted Joseph Occhipinti, a decorated agent of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for civil rights violations and illegal consent searches in connection with an undercover operation targeting Dominican businesses with alleged ties to drug cartels.
Mr. Occhipinti claimed he was set up by prosecutors to thwart his investigation into reports that a Dominican drug cartel employed a former federal prosecutor who held private sex and drug parties in order to coax lenient sentences for cartel figures.
He was convicted and sentenced to 37 months in prison.
Some police, civil rights and community groups protested the conviction, and an investigation by then-congressman Rep. James Traficant, Jr. of Ohio and others concluded there had been prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
Then-President George H.W. Bush commuted Mr. Occhipinti’s sentence in 1993, and he has since testified before Congress and been the subject of books and articles questioning the Justice Department’s use of civil rights laws and its ability to police misconduct within its ranks.
Despite his claims about Mr. Johnson, however, the former prosecutor has been previously confirmed by the Senate, and any problems he is likely to encounter will only be because his nomination has become collateral damage in the war being waged by Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.
Two weeks ago, the senator pledged to block any new nominations until the administration allows lawmakers to question survivors of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year.
• Jeffrey Anderson contributed to this article.