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Lessons in Law, Leadership, and Leading a ‘Good Life’: An Interview with Jeh Johnson

Jeh Johnson served as Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 and General Counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012. He was appointed to both positions by President Barack Obama. Earlier in his career, Johnson was General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force from 1998 to 2001, as well as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1989 to 1991. In private life, he has worked at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP, on and off since 1984. He became the firm’s first African American partner in 1994 and is currently a member of the firm’s Management and Partnership Committees. Johnson is on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin, US Steel, the Council on Foreign Relations, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, the Center for a New American Security, and WBGO, an FM radio station based in Newark, New Jersey. He is also a trustee of Columbia University, and is a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia Law School. 

Sam Kolitch: You have left Paul, Weiss four times to pursue four different positions in public service, including Secretary of Homeland Security and General Counsel of the Department of Defense. Did you always want a career that spanned the public and private sectors?

Jeh Johnson: I am sixty-four years old. I was born in 1957. Everybody has a moment, or a month, or a year, of political awakening. For some, their political awakening is more acute than others. For me, it was the year 1968, when I was ten going on eleven. 1968, like 2020, was a very consequential year — Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, Dr. King’s assassination, LBJ’s withdrawal, RFK’s entry into the race, RFK’s assassination, political conventions, the election, Apollo 8. My family got a color TV that year, so I was watching it all live and in color. I was fascinated by it. It was then that I realized there was a larger world around me, and I wanted to be a part of it. 

When I got to law school, I became infatuated with going to a large law firm. In 1981, which was forty years ago, it caught my eye that partners at major law firms could make as much as $500,000 a year. Starting associates could make $43,000. So I had that objective when I started my legal career, but the desire to be in public service never left me. 

SK: A lot of young people, including myself, want to pursue a career in public service but hesitate because of the rewards of the private sector. In fact, this was an issue you faced as Secretary of Homeland Security when you had trouble recruiting cyber-talent because of the higher pay in the tech sector than in government. How do we make public service more attractive—and accessible—to young people? 

JJ: My public service has been, by far, the most consequential part of my professional life and the most gratifying and the most satisfying. I know a lot of lawyers who have spent a career in public service who make a fraction of what a successful lawyer in private life can make, but their level of job satisfaction is high because they are doing things that are consequential.

In terms of the answer to your immediate question, I think that mentorship is very important—someone like you getting to know someone like me, who can introduce you to avenues into public service and into national security that are not apparent to you, that are not obvious. I’ve mentored young lawyers for thirty years who are now in public life. 

A lot of people come to me and say, “How do I get into public service? How do I get into national security?” And I basically say, “Follow me, kid.” It’s the phrase, “It’s who you know,” that is often used in a negative way. But the reality is that if there are a thousand people and a thousand resumes of people interested in getting into public service, it will often require someone to call the right people’s attention to somebody in that stack of a thousand resumes. 

The other point I’d offer is that two out of the four jobs I’ve had in public life were totally unanticipated. I was offered the job of General Counsel of the Air Force by the Clinton White House in 1998. I had no idea what that job was. I had to ask, “What does that person do?” I had to go to the Pentagon—I’d never set foot in the Pentagon before—to learn more about the job. The more I learned, the more I realized, “Hey, this is something I could be interested in.” When President Obama asked me to be Secretary of Homeland Security, I was totally shocked. I did not have any ambition to be in that position. My first question to myself was, “Am I qualified to run an organization of 230,000 people?” I answered my own question by saying, “Well, if the President thinks you are, maybe you are.” The point of that is: for someone interested in getting into public service, very often you have to be prepared to seriously contemplate the unanticipated. 

SK: The Secretary of Homeland Security leads the third largest cabinet department of the US government, consisting of 230,000 personnel and twenty-two incorporated agencies. What are some lessons you took away from managing such a vast portfolio of responsibilities?

JJ: Lawyering is not a natural skill for leadership. Lawyers do not naturally make good leaders because their task is to learn a lot about one subject at a time for a client. And as a leader of a very large organization, you don’t have the advantage of time to do that. I learned the job of Secretary of Homeland Security issue by issue, problem by problem. I’m not the kind of person who can just take a large briefing book and digest it all. I need to learn an issue when I’m confronted with it, and that’s how I learned immigration policy and border security, for example. 

Leadership comes from good instincts about how to be a leader—transparency, being transparent, showing your workforce that you are a champion for them, that you are their representative to the outside world. It’s also crucial, in my opinion, to have a small set of trusted advisors who you’re prepared to listen to, who have a range of views about things. It’s good to have an advisor who is more conservative and one who is more progressive; it’s good to have an advisor who is more of a risk taker and an advisor who is risk averse. If you’re prepared to listen, out of that deliberation can come really smart policy and really smart leadership.  

Sometimes, it comes down to just plain old, good instincts. One of the best things I ever did as Secretary was play undercover boss. I dressed up in a TSA uniform at BWI Airport, and I passed the bins and screened the passengers. The TSA workforce loved it. They just loved the fact the boss put on a TSA uniform. And it helped, I think, with their attitudes toward their leadership. I was determined to improve morale in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department was always at the bottom of the list in terms of morale—in part because it’s a new department with growing pains, in part because when you work on homeland security, you’re always on defense. One failure equals a thousand successes, and there are very few opportunities to spike the ball. 

SK: You have said that immigration was the most intractable issue you faced not only at DHS but in your entire public life. It seems to me like there might always be a conflict between deterring people from migrating to America while also upholding our ideals as a nation of immigrants—

JJ: I don’t believe that. There’s a right way and a wrong way to come to our country—and we are a nation of immigrants. If someone is here, they should have an opportunity to apply for asylum. If someone was brought here as a child, I believe that they should have an opportunity to become part of the DACA class. We should give them an opportunity, eventually, to become citizens. Those who have been here more than ten years, which is over half of those undocumented in this country, should be given an opportunity to become accountable and possibly become citizens as well. You have to deal with that class of people. They are not going away. And it’s part of our values to give people the opportunity to resettle as refugees and give people the opportunity to apply for asylum if they are here. But we have to get control of our borders. 

I believe most Americans believe everything I just said. We have to enforce the law in ways that make sense, without just rounding up everybody indiscriminately. And yes, it is a struggle to try to achieve all of those ends, but I believe it can be done. The problem is that immigration is such a hotly politicized issue that no matter what you do, somebody’s going to be very, very mad at you. Those with a voice in the debate occupy the extreme ends of the debate. On the one hand, some say we should deport everybody, detain everybody, arrest everybody, and close the border. On the other extreme, if you follow the logic, some say we should not arrest anybody, we should not detain anybody, and we should not deport anybody. There’s a whole lot in between where I think sound immigration policy can exist.

SK: In addition to immigration, your responsibilities as Secretary of Homeland Security included counterterrorism, cybersecurity, biological and nuclear threats to the homeland, maritime security, and responses to natural disasters, just to name a few. As a parent with knowledge of the most classified threats to the homeland, how forthcoming were you with your kids about their safety?

JJ: That’s an interesting question. Most people, when they think of homeland security, are not thinking about national homeland security policy. They’re not thinking about immigration policies. They’re not thinking about border security. Most Americans are thinking, “Is it safe to let my kids go back to school in light of COVID?” They’re thinking about day-to-day, real-life concerns for their own family’s safety. Lots of times I get calls from family and friends, “Is it safe for my son to go to France six months after a terrorist attack there?” or something like that. I would generally encourage people that the answer is yes, but do A, B, and C. I would rarely say don’t go someplace, and the same lesson applies to my kids. 

People always think that somehow the government knows way more than they know, and sometimes that’s right. People used to ask me all the time, “Are we safe?” or, “What keeps you up at night?” The best question you can ask is: “How big a gap is there between what I know and what the government knows?” It differs over time. There are moments in time when that gap is really big, and there are moments in time when that gap is really small. That’s the best question you can ask somebody in national security. 

SK: You were in Manhattan on the day of the September 11 attacks, and it happened to be your forty-fourth birthday. Upon reflecting on that day, you have said that 9/11 drew you back into public service and back into national security under President Obama. And, according to published reports, you ultimately gave the legal approval for the US special forces to enter Pakistan for the bin Laden operation on May 1, 2011. How were you briefed on the operation? 

JJ: I was read into that operation on March 24, 2011, by the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Mike Vickers. He’s a very secretive guy, his blinds were always drawn, and he invited me into his office. I had no idea why I was there. He said, “I’m about to read you into the biggest secret in Washington.” I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” He showed me this trail of how we knew bin Laden was at the compound in Abbottabad. It was a highly circumstantial case, but it was a compelling case. I was being read into this because the President and the National Security Advisor realized they needed to bring in a very, very small number of lawyers to look at the legality of the operation. My piece was whether, under international law, we could go into Pakistan to get bin Laden without Pakistan’s knowledge and consent. I issued a highly classified legal opinion on a CIA laptop, which I’m sure I will never see again, that concluded that we could. 

SK: On the morning of the bin Laden operation, you were working through nerves by planting some 200 impatiens outside your home. What was going through your mind, as you were gardening, on the morning of what turned out to be one of the most consequential missions in US military history? 

JJ: What 9/11 and May 1, 2011, had in common was that both days seemed to move very slowly. One minute was like the equivalent of one hour.

[On the day of the operation, which happened to be on a Sunday], I told my family, “I have to go to work today.” I put on a sport coat, which is more than I would usually wear on a weekday going to the Pentagon. The day before, I bought all these impatiens, which I usually plant in the spring, and I planted them all on the morning of the operation because I got up early, and I had nothing to do, and I wanted to make myself busy. Then I got dressed, I went to the church a few blocks away in Georgetown, took communion, went to the Pentagon, and watched and heard the whole thing. I felt a sense of closure after it all happened. As a New Yorker, I felt a sense of closure. I remember the last thing that I heard Tom Donilon, who was then the National Security Advisor, say in the conference call, “All right, nobody say anything. This is still considered classified.” 

I came home at around seven o’clock. I was exhausted. I had dinner. I kept watching the TV because I knew, given the big splash we had just made in Pakistan, this news is going to be out before midnight. I kept watching the TV out of the corner of my eye. And then I went to sleep, and I woke up at around ten o’clock. By then Wolf Blitzer was on CNN, and he was saying, “The President’s going to make an announcement.” I said to my family, “Hey, I want you to watch TV.” “Why, Dad?” “I want you to watch TV because then you’ll see what Dad’s been working on, which I couldn’t talk about before.” I refused to tell them what the President was going to say because I wanted them to hear it coming from President Obama. There were two of my deputies—who couldn’t be involved, but they would have normally been involved—and I wanted them to feel like they were part of it, so I called them and I said, “Watch TV.” The President then made his announcement. 

That was May 1, 2011, and that was my single best day in public service. 

SK: Was it difficult to keep such consequential work concealed from your family and friends?

JJ: It’s not as difficult as you’d think. My wife learned not to speculate about things. She learned this earlier in our marriage because I wanted to know the sex of our children and she did not. So both times she was pregnant, I knew for several months and she did not know. Every once in a while when she was pregnant, she’d look at me or she’d look at a friend, and she’d say, “I think it’s going to be a girl.” She’d then look at my face. I’d have to not betray whether she was right or wrong. 

SK: How did you unwind if you were unable to vent about work to your family? 

JJ: When I’d come home from work at the Pentagon or DHS, I would turn on ’60’s and ’70’s sitcoms because I didn’t want to see the news because I was, all day, involved in things that were newsworthy. I’d watch Andy Griffith and things like that.

SK: Did music allow you to unwind? I know you are a big fan of R&B and WBGO, an FM radio station based in Newark, New Jersey. 

JJ: I can tell you’ve done your research. I love WBGO. A couple of times a year, I go on with Felix Hernandez and I co-host. [Secretary Johnson shows Sam a picture on his phone of him in a WBGO radio booth.] It’s more fun than any Meet the Press interview or any congressional testimony. Here’s my other hobby, which I have really taken up another notch since I have come back home. [Secretary Johnson shows Sam pictures and videos on his phone of model trains as well as models of a KFC, White Castle, U-Haul rental lot, and Dairy Queen, all of which he built himself.] So those are my hobbies: classic R&B and model trains—and collecting bumper stickers. I suppose politics is my hobby, too. 

SK: Which aspects of being a leader were most nerve-racking: public speaking, congressional testimonies, or something else? 

JJ: When I was your age, I used to be terrified of public speaking. The thought of giving a public speech was absolutely terrifying. I got over it, though. I started to get over it in moot court and law school. By the time I became an Assistant US Attorney, I learned how to talk to juries. A confirmation hearing is also nerve-racking because it’s all about you. You’re the object. For any congressional testimony, and for TV appearances, it’s always good to be a little bit nervous so you don’t let your guard down totally. 

But the most nerve-racking thing is throwing out a first pitch at a baseball game. You only get one chance. You can warm up all you want, but at the end of the day, when you get out there in front of that crowd, on that mound, you only get one chance as soon as the ball leaves your hand. That’s it. There’s no do-over. My first first pitch was at Citi Field, game two of the 2014 season. And Bill de Blasio told me, “Whatever you do, don’t throw it in the dirt. If you throw it in the dirt, they’re going to boo you.” And that never got out of my head.  

SK: I know that you wanted to be a Mets player when you were younger, so throwing the first pitch at Citi Field must have been exciting, too. But besides being nervous on the mound, are you now a more paranoid person given everything you experienced at DHS and the Pentagon? 

JJ: Yes. I think I recognize situations that have the potential to become dangerous. I spot situations or behavior that could be suspicious. The other day, when I pulled up in front of the NBC studio on Capitol Hill, there was an abandoned backpack on the curb in front of the studio. I went straight to security and I said, “There’s an unaccompanied backpack out there. Somebody ought to…” Ten years ago, I might not have done that. 

SK: With all you know now, then, if you could wave a magic wand and change the way America does homeland security, what would you do? 

JJ: The reality is that the DHS model for counterterrorism is outdated. The thinking in 2002, when it was created, was that terrorism was an extra-territorial threat. The thinking was if you consolidated into one cabinet department all the different ways somebody enters the country—land, sea, and air—you’ve effectively dealt with terrorism. Now, however, most terrorism and the threat of terrorism is domestic based. It’s already here in this country.

If I could wave a wand or issue a decree, I would create one large “Department of Public Safety” with every federal law enforcement agency within it. I’d leave the lawyers in the Department of Justice, and I’d have a Department of Public Safety. I would deconflict all of their missions. I’d have one intelligence directorate that provides the intel to support all these law enforcement components, and I’d put them all in one place, and I’d have one cabinet official lead this immense department. It’ll never happen because there are too many entrenched interests in Congress. But that’s the most efficient way to run public safety in this country, in my judgment.

SK: Switching gears to your time as General Counsel of the Department of Defense, how did you weigh the merits of signing off on an operation versus the legality of it? It seems to me like there might be a tension between something you think is the right thing to do and what the law actually allows. 

JJ: Let me give you the inverse. It is very, very important that lawyers not masquerade their policy and political preferences as a legal opinion—because when the lawyer says you can’t do something, that’s a red light. This is opposed to what a policy advisor can say. When a lawyer says you can’t do something, then the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the commander have to stop. So it’s important that lawyers don’t mix their political policy preferences with their legal advice. 

There have been times when I have signed off on something by saying, “Legally available, but politically stupid.” The job of a lawyer is to establish the legal lanes in which the policymakers and the commanders can operate. Some lawyers I’ve worked with are less good at this, and they cannot help but express their policy preferences in terms of a legal opinion. The law is the law whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.

SK: At certain points, you were in a presumably windowless room in the Pentagon scrutinizing the legal efficacy of an operation set to take place thousands of miles away. How did you avoid making life-and-death decisions in the abstract?  

JJ: I would watch the aerial imagery of the operation I approved. That kept it real, and there was always something I would learn from watching the operation that I hadn’t appreciated before. At DHS, I frequently made trips to the southern border. And each time I would go, I would spend time talking to the migrants, especially the kids. “Why did you come here? What was the journey like?” That keeps it real. 

SK: You’ve described yourself as being a “big underachiever” who received C’s and D’s in high school and early in college. What flipped the switch for you academically? 

JJ: Morehouse College. I was a sophomore, and I became inspired there. The inspiration for Morehouse men is Martin Luther King, and also Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, President Emeritus of Morehouse College, who was a guiding light for a lot of Morehouse men. He gave the eulogy at Dr. King’s funeral. It was just impossible not to be inspired at Morehouse College. My freshman year, I had a 1.8 GPA. My last two years, I had a 4.0 GPA. I was just inspired by the lectures, the sermons, the teaching, and other students who were determined to succeed and who had goals and ambitions. That was contagious. It was an inspirational environment; it was in the air at Morehouse.

SK: How do you reconcile Dr. King’s anti-war philosophy with your job as General Counsel of the Department of Defense, in which you helped advance the military’s agenda? 

JJ: That was the conundrum I was faced with when I went into national security, obviously. I became an imperfect vessel of Dr. King’s message, like just about anybody who goes into national security. He believed that all wars were inherently insane, and therefore I was never going to be in a position to be the perfect example of his legacy. When I went into my first job in the Pentagon, I didn’t consciously think to myself, “I’m compromising myself as a Morehouse man.” But it was only after giving speeches and so forth that I fully came to appreciate that. 

We have our own personal moral convictions, but in public life, in national security, in foreign policy, you rarely have the opportunity to act solely on your personal moral convictions. It is a unique, multidimensional decision-making process to devise good government policy. Your moral convictions can play a part in that, but they’re not the only consideration.

SK: You do not avoid speaking to audiences who disagree with your politics. In fact, you seem to relish opportunities to “talk to the other side.” Why? 

JJ: It’s easy to talk to somebody who you know already agrees with you. But what’s the point? I look for moments to try to speak to a broader audience.

One of the attributes of a good leader, in my judgement, is the willingness to try to reach audiences who don’t agree with you, who open a bridge to people who think differently from you. I’m on MSNBC a lot. I’m on Meet the Press and Face the Nation a fair amount. But I also go on Fox News once in a while—when I’m invited—with the specific goal of challenging [its audience]. For example, I was on Fox and Friends right after President Trump said what he said about [“The Squad”]. He said, “They should go back to where they came from,” or whatever. I went on Fox to say that three of the four Democratic congresswomen are US citizens, and that there’s no place to go back to except the United States. There was a live Fox and Friends audience that morning. 

SK: On the topic of reaching broader audiences, you delivered the convocation address at Liberty University last year, in which you listed five traits of a good leader. The trait that most interests me given your national security background is “always tell the truth” since being completely transparent with the general public is not always an option in roles like Secretary of Homeland Security and General Counsel of the Defense Department. How should the government balance keeping things covert but not make Americans suspicious of the government’s secrecy? 

JJ: Many Americans by nature are suspicious of power, are suspicious of their government. Many Americans believe that the government is always withholding something, and to a certain extent, that’s true. There are things that are classified. There are things that are deliberative that we don’t share with the public. 

But when I was in office, I did try to be transparent—as transparent as I could. I gave speeches about the legality of our counterterrorism efforts at Yale University, at Oxford University, in a number of other places. At DHS, my view was you don’t just scare people for the sake of scaring people. My successor, John Kelly, once said publicly, “If you knew what I knew, you’d never get out of bed in the morning.” My view is there’s no point in saying that to the American public.

In a high threat environment, my public statements tried to have three components to them. Component number one: Be as candid as possible. Here’s the threat, here’s the situation. Component number two: Here are the ten things your government is doing about the situation. If you’re going to warn people about a threat, I think the American public is entitled to know what their government is doing about it. And component number three: What should the American people do? I would say something like, “It’s still safe to go to public events. It’s still safe to enjoy the July 4th weekend, but remember if you see something, say something, or go on this website to learn more.” 

SK: With that advice in mind, what is the biggest threat to homeland security today? 

JJ: Climate change, climate change, climate change. Climate change is a slow-motion emergency. It never makes it to the top of the inbox for the things that we have to address today, as opposed to getting that next budget deal, raising the national debt ceiling, getting a deal on critical infrastructure, or going home for the weekend so you can win reelection. People think there’s always tomorrow. But if you’re planning on inhabiting this planet in the year 2070 or 2080, you should care a lot more about this issue than somebody who’s sixty-four years old. But all of us need to think in these urgent terms. The crisis is clear.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.