DHS nominee names filling leadership vacancies as top priority

Department of Homeland Security nominee Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that counterterrorism, the agency's core mission, will fall behind filling leadership vacancies and boosting morale in his list of priorities.

The former federal prosecutor and Pentagon general counsel was testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for his nomination hearing. If confirmed, he will be the fourth person to lead the 11-year-old agency created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He will replace Janet Napolitano, who left in September to become president of the University of California system.

Putting leadership vacancies ahead of counterterrorism sets Johnson apart from his predecessors, but also reflects the challenges of leading such a sprawling operation responsible for everything from disaster response to immigration enforcement. Roughly 40 percent of senior leadership positions are vacant.

"There are leadership vacancies within DHS of alarming proportions. As I speak, the department of government charged with the vital mission of homeland security has no secretary, no deputy secretary and a number of other senior positions are vacant," Johnson told the committee. "If confirmed as secretary, my immediate priority, starting the day I take the oath, will be to work with the White House and the Senate to fill the remainder of these key leadership positions. ''

Immigration - which President Obama has identified as a top priority during the remainder of the year - was seventh on Johnson's list of priorities.

Johnson also used his opening statement to address concerns about whether he has sufficient experience to head the vast agency, particularly in the area of law enforcement. He pointed to two years serving as a federal prosecutor in New York, where he worked with the Secret Service, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other local law enforcement. He noted that he also served for more than two years as part of a senior management team for the Air Force and four years in the top rungs of the Defense Department.

Even Sen. Coburn, the ranking Republican on the committee who expressed concern that Johnson's pre-hearing questionnaire bore an exact resemblance to the ones submitted by other Obama administration nominees, predicted Johnson will be confirmed.

But there could be a hurdle along the way in the form of a threat from Sen. Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican is threatening to block all of President Obama's nominees from being confirmed unless the administration allows Congress to question the survivors of the Sept. 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.