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Obama picks attorney Jeh Johnson for Homeland Security chief

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will nominate former Pentagon attorney Jeh Johnson, a national security expert who had a role in ending the military's ban on gays in the military, to be Homeland Security chief, a White House official said on Thursday.

Johnson, who served as general counsel in the Department of Defense during Obama's first term, would succeed Janet Napolitano, who stepped down earlier this year. His nomination requires Senate confirmation.

Obama will announce the selection during a White House ceremony at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Friday.

"The president is selecting Johnson because he is one (of) the most highly qualified and respected national security leaders, having served as the senior lawyer for the largest government agency in the world," the official said.

"By advising the president and two secretaries of defense, he was at the center of the development of some of the most sensitive and important national security policies and strategies during the first term."

Johnson is now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP.

Johnson was involved in the administration's policy over the legality of drone use.

He helped lead a review and authored a report that led to the 2010 repeal of the "Don't' Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

The White House described Johnson as a key member of Obama's counterterrorism circle.

"As a senior member of my management team at the Pentagon, Jeh worked on every major issue affecting America's security, including border security, counterterrorism, and cyber security," said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a statement. "I urge the Senate to act quickly to confirm him."

If confirmed, Johnson, an African-American, would bring further racial diversity to Obama's Cabinet. The first black U.S. president has been criticized for having a high number of white men in top Cabinet roles. Johnson graduated from Morehouse College in 1979 and Columbia Law School in 1982.

The nomination is the latest by Obama since he nominated Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen last week as the new head of the U.S. central bank. It comes as the federal government gets back into gear after a 16-day shutdown.

DISASTER RESPONSE, IMMIGRATION

Johnson was involved in helping the Department of Defense provide resources to the Department of Homeland Security during disaster responses such as Hurricane Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, the White House official said.

Disaster response, border security and immigration reform - a top priority of Obama's second term - are all major DHS responsibilities.

"Jeh Johnson had a distinguished career at the Pentagon where he has grappled with the challenges of protecting national security while respecting human rights and upholding American ideals," said Elisa Massimino, head of Human Rights First, in a statement.

"The United States has a long history as a nation of immigrants, and part of that legacy includes our commitment to protecting refugees. We urge Jeh Johnson to make this vulnerable population a priority as his nomination moves forward."

A spokesman for Senator Tom Coburn, the top Republican on the Senate's Homeland Security committee, said the next department chief would be expected to bring about reform.

"Dr. Coburn looks forward to meeting with Mr. Johnson and considering his qualifications to lead and reform DHS," the spokesman said.

Coburn has raised concerns about wasteful spending at the department, including grants for domestic law enforcement agencies used to buy drones for surveillance.

Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security committee, criticized Obama for leaving many positions at the agency unfilled.

"Even with this prospective nominee, over 40 percent of senior leadership positions at DHS are either vacant or have an ‘acting' placeholder," the Texas Republican said in a statement.

"The lack of leadership at the White House is reflected in the holes in leadership at the Department, and these important positions must be filled in order to fill the holes in our homeland security."

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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