Defense Dept. attorney on service, military reforms, counter-terrorism




By Elizabeth Ellis

Contributing Writer


Attorney Jeh Johnson has worked as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer, and in a speech he gave in St. Paul, he gave a comical anecdote of how his first trial as a defense attorney was affected by his previous work as a prosecutor, slipping into the old habits that had been drummed in to him.

He told the jury in his opening statement, “First, listen to the evidence; second, listen to the law as the judge explains it; and then use your common sense to find the defendant guilty.”

“Er, not guilty!” the court reporter hissed in his ear.

Many years later, Jeh (pronounced “Jay” — he was named after a Liberian chief) Johnson is now general counsel of the Department of Defense. He talked about his life and his current position last March at the William Mitchell College of Law’s National Security Forum.

Johnson, a grandson of Dr. Charles S. Johnson, the first Black president of Fisk University, was asked if having fellow African American federal lawyers Mike Davis and Todd Jones here in the Twin Cities indicates an improvement in the struggles, or “should we not even mention their ethnicity.” Johnson answered by talking about his mother, who was from Washington, D.C., and his father, from a segregated Nashville.

“My mother went to a segregated movie theater, her pool was a fountain, and she couldn’t play in the parks. Discrimination takes on different faces, but there have been enormous changes in my lifetime. I would’ve never believed 10 years ago that I would be campaigning for a Black president. Ten years ago, I didn’t even know Barack Obama.”

He encouraged the law school students, “Please consider a career of public service. It’s not about what you got, but what you gave.”

As general consul for the Department of Defense (DOD) his day begins at 6 am and ends at 7:30 pm, with 10-12 meetings a day. Add to that workload three-to-four visits to the Middle East and giving testimony a dozen times in three years before Congress. International law, military law, intelligence, acquisition, personnel, ethics, lawsuits against DOD, drafting legislation and fiscal law (getting money through appropriation bills) all fall under his bailiwick.

Reforms, specifically regarding Guantanamo Bay, have granted detainees the right to habeas corpus; still, politics has gotten in the way of preventing the opening of a new alternative site in Thompson, IL. “Our attorneys take great care in how we represent the government in these cases,” he emphasized.

Military commissions has been another area of reform with “every case reviewed one by one.” The goal is to be more refined, more credible in order for DOD to be more sustainable to the American public: “We believe in being accountable and transparent with the support of U.S. citizens.”

DOD works with the Department of Justice and the FBI. “[The] cyber world is an evolving arena,” of work for DOD attorneys, Johnson said, as is considering reform to prevent the sexual assaults that have been reported in today’s military.

Johnson also lead an assessment team of the military’s “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy to assess the risks to effectiveness and cohesion. Of the team’s 400,000 surveys, 140,000 (or 28 percent) gave responses. According to the survey 80 percent of the respondents felt they had already served with someone they thought was gay, but discovered the effect on their military effectiveness was nil.

The gay service members who responded wanted “service over self” but added, “You have no idea what it is like to serve in silence.”

Johnson spoke about national security, the chief function of the DOD, including dealing with “affiliates”: hostile forces associated with the unconventional, non-state, belligerent and congressionally declared enemies of the United States.

Johnson said, “We don’t make [laws] up as we go. It’s an unconventional enemy we’re up against.” The last administration needed to craft a law to address and deal with the September 11, 2001 attacks, but if the present administration operates under it, “Sometimes, even lawyers agree,” he added.

He asked his audience of mostly suit-and-tie attorneys to thank any service member they should happen to see. “It is humbling representing the military who work in the defense of the rest of us under less than optimal conditions.”

Johnson and the DOD have their hands full with Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya. “We’re making slow, steady, and hopefully, sustainable work against the Taliban.”

“Nothing,” Johnson said of counter-terrorism, “takes up more of my thoughts and more of my time.”

Johnson’s birthday is September 11.


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