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Homeland Security nominee Johnson ranks agency's core mission as 3rd priority

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 7:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama's choice to run the Department of Homeland Security placed the agency's core mission — counterterrorism — as his third priority during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday and took some criticism for submitting written answers to Congress that cribbed responses from several other Obama administration nominees.

The two-hour hearing for Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's former top lawyer, was largely cordial. Most senators questioning him suggested he was likely to win confirmation easily and would become the fourth Homeland Security secretary.

But following the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he plans to place a hold on his nomination, joining another senior Republican senator who has made the same pledge.

In answers to a committee prehearing questionnaire, Johnson said his top three priorities were filling vacancies at the department, addressing low morale and terrorism — priorities which say less about the terror threat to the U.S. and more about what's happened to the sprawling bureaucracy formed since the 9/11 attacks.

Ten years after the department was formed, the mere challenge of running the agency has overtaken countering terrorism. And Congress appears to be OK with that, as senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee did not raise any issue with Johnson's priority list.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, however, the leading Republican on the committee, said he was concerned that Johnson's written answers to customary prehearing questions used the same language in 23 instances as several other Obama administration nominees.

Johnson's answer to one question was identical to the answer another Homeland Security nominee, Suzanne Spaulding, provided senators this year.

“I will continue to engage them in strengthening our public-private partnership by participating in trusted communities to enhance collaboration and build shared threat knowledge,” both Johnson and Spaulding wrote in their answers to questions about cybersecurity.

“They're not your answers,” Coburn said to Johnson. “The point is to get your thoughts.”

Coburn said he would not consider the questionnaire complete until the committee receives new answers to the questions. Coburn added that he expects Johnson's nomination to win Senate approval.

Johnson, a multimillionaire attorney who was largely unknown in homeland security circles before his nomination, was greeted in the hearing room by a small group of protesters decrying his role as a former top Defense Department lawyer who authorized U.S. drone strikes abroad.

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