Jeh Johnson confirmed as new US Homeland Security chief

Mr Jeh Johnson testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in November 2013 in Washington, DC. The US Senate on Monday, Dec 16, 2013,  easily confirmed the for
Mr Jeh Johnson testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in November 2013 in Washington, DC. The US Senate on Monday, Dec 16, 2013,  easily confirmed the former top Pentagon lawyer to be the next head of the Department of Homeland Security. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States Senate on Monday easily confirmed Jeh Johnson, a former top Pentagon lawyer, to be the next head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Mr Johnson will be the first African-American to lead the huge department, and only the fourth person to head DHS since it was created by then President George W. Bush in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr Johnson won confirmation 78-16. He could be sworn in as early as this week in order to begin immediately tackling some departmental priorities including stiffening border security, upgrading airport protections and improving immigration enforcement operations.

"Mr Johnson has served as the senior lawyer for the largest government agency in the world," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, referring to the Pentagon, where Mr Johnson oversaw a legal team of thousands.

Mr Johnson, who also served for two years as an assistant US attorney, had the backing of previous DHS secretaries Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano, who left the position earlier this year.

As the Pentagon's top lawyer, Johnson was responsible for a prior legal review of every military operation ordered by the President or the Defence Secretary.

In October, when he announced his nomination, President Barack Obama said Mr Johnson had been at the heart of many of the policies that have kept America safe.

"From the moment I took office, Jeh was an absolutely critical member of my national security team," Mr Obama said.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who opposed the confirmation, said it was vital to bring in a seasoned manager and national security expert to bring swift and credible order to the agency, but that Mr Johnson "doesn't come close" to meeting that challenge.

DHS is an amalgamation of 22 separate agencies with 240,000 employees, and several critics have argued that the department is in disarray.