A ‘fireside chat’ with the Hon. Jeh Johnson, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and DoD General Counsel

At our 27th Annual National Security Law Conference presented by the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security last week we were thrilled to have the Hon. Jeh Johnson as our keynote speaker.  In a wide-ranging nearly hour long conversation, he spoke candidly on developments in the Ukraine, the challenges of cybersecurity, perspectives on leading military and civilian lawyers, and much more.  I’m pleased to tell you that the video of this not-to-be missed conversation is now available, so you’re invited to watch (or listen to) our “fireside chat” here.

It is hard to think of anyone better qualified to give a national security law conference audience a “Perspective on Contemporary National Security Issues” as his talk was titled.  He has the perfect background: now a partner at the 1000-lawyer firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Secretary Johnson’s resume also reflects a lifetime of public service. 

Consider this awesome record: he served as Secretary of Homeland Security (2013-2017); General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2009-2012); General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force (1998-2001); and Assistant U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York (1989-1991).  It is no surprise he was selected last December as a recipient of the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Lawyer.

Here are just a few tidbits from the conversation:

I expected a great discussion, but – wow – what he gave us was a magnificent and thoughtful tour de force about a wide number of issues.  What made Secretary’s Johnson’s remarks especially fascinating is that he included candid personal anecdotes.  For example, he shared an amusing story from his early days as Air Force general counsel. 

He explained that at the time he “was totally new to national security,” and coming to the Pentagon became a “huge learning experience” for him.  Indeed, he made an unexpected discovery about the scope of his responsibilities when a workman was hanging his presidential appointment and also his Senate commission in his new office.  Here’s what transpired:

He said to me, with his tool belt and everything, “Where’s your third one?”

And I said, “what do you mean my third one?”

“Your third certificate.”

And I said, “I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”

And he said, “Well, aren’t you the general counsel of the Air Force?”‘ Yeah. And he said, “Well, don’t you know that as the general counsel of the Air Force you’re governor of an island?”

And I said, “you’re kidding. I’m governor of an island? “

Sure enough, by virtue of delegations in law and DOD regs and Air Force regs, the general counsel of the Air Force for years has been the civil administrator of Wake Island Pacific. Don’t know how that happened, but there it was.

On the more serious topic of the conflict in Ukraine–which he believes is “going to get uglier before it gets better.”–Secretary Johnson focused on the potential of Russian cyberattacks against the U.S.  He noted at that time that DHS “says there is no specific or credible threat in cyberspace to the homeland.”  He still worries, however, because he believes there is a “moderate to high” risk Russia has embedded malware in U.S. systems, possibly during the 2020 Solar Winds hack

As to what ordinary Americans can do to protect themselves, he pointed out that:

[T]he most devastating attacks in cyberspace occur simply because of an act of ‘spear phishing.” If you’re in the Duke University email system, and you respond to an email from someone you think you know, and then you open the attachment, you might be letting the bad actor into the gate where he can then pose as virtually anybody and do almost anything to plant malware, espionage, ransomware, theft.

Asked about how the U.S. Government ought to organize itself against cyberattacks, he said:

I do not believe that NSA, US Cyber Command, the Department of Defense should be in the business of domestic cybersecurity, except to safeguard government networks themselves. In my judgment, the principal responsibility of the Department of Defense is offensive cyber capabilities directed against overseas bad actors, whether they be nation-states or cyber criminals working, say, from a Russian platform.

He also offered his view as to how we ought to regard hostile cyber incidents in the 21st century:

I gave congressional testimony to this effect, that certain cyber attacks on the United States on private Infrastructure in the United States can constitute an act of war. And I looked into this question in preparation for congressional testimony a couple of years ago.

And basically, the conventional wisdom — citing a guy named Charlie Dunlap, by the way — is that if the attack causes physical destruction in the same way a kinetic attack would, loss of property, loss of life on a large scale, it can be regarded as an act of war warranting a response, proportionate, but not necessarily in kind.  We need to think along those terms [as I now regard] cyberspace as the principal battle space in the 21st century.

Notwithstanding the events of Ukraine, we are getting away from conventional nation-state on nation-state kinetic warfare.  The real battlefield is now in cyber.

When asked about his leadership experiences, he related that as Homeland Security Secretary raising the morale of his 230,000-person organization was a top priority.  He used something of an “undercover boss” technique by serving a stint as a uniformed airport Transportation Security Agency (TSA) employee to get a first-hand sense of what it was like to be on the frontlines of America’s efforts to safeguard air transport, and to show those who worked for him his support for their efforts.

The experience did produce a humorous story:

I literally one day put on the TSA uniform at BWI [Baltimore-Washington International Airport] and worked the lines, and escorted this couple to their gate. They were flying down to North Carolina. And I didn’t tell them who I was; they had no idea who I was. And I finally said to the husband, “my name is Jeh Johnson. Do you know who I am?” And he said, “Yeah, you just told me your name is Jeh Johnson.”


And then I said to the wife there in the wheelchair, “ma’am, I hope you realize that I am the head of this entire federal agency.” And she said, “Well, congratulations on your promotion, young man!”

Secretary Johnson also reflected on the rewards of public service:

Photo credit: Joy Dunlap

[I]n public service you may make a fraction of which can make in private law practice. But the most rewarding things you do in your career will be things you did in public service.

Helping to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” is something I’m immensely proud of, which I did in public service. Being part of the legal thinking that went into the Bin Laden raid is the other thing I’m most proud of in public service, which I obviously could not do in private law practice.

Though there are real sacrifices, I know a whole lot of lawyers who were career public servants whose job satisfaction level was always very high, because they were making a difference. They were doing big things. And so I constantly encourage law students, young lawyers, even middle-aged lawyers to think about a career in public service. You will find that some of your most rewarding experiences are serving your nation, your country, your city, your community. And there’s a lot of good work to be done there.

Believe me, there is much, much more in the “fireside chat” as Secretary Johnson very generously shared his perspective on such topics as Guantanamo, drone strikes, immigration, COVID, worries about the toxic political environment and the willingness of people to serve, and other topics of current interest.

We rarely get to hear extended interviews of those who have served, as Secretary Johnson has, at the highest levels of government, so you really ought to check this one out! 

Again, watch/listen to the full interview here.

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