DHS Nominee Faces Potential Hold Over Border Security

In his testimony, Johnson pledged to spend a considerable amount of time getting the 10-year-old Department of Homeland Security into fighting shape. Currently, 40 percent of the senior leadership positions within the agency are either vacant or held by someone in a temporary capacity.

Johnson said the leadership vacancies within the department have reached “alarming proportions” and he intends to devote time and attention to management issues if he is confirmed.

“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 said. “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.”

Johnson also vowed to keep an eye on the agency’s money issues and will push for audited financial statements.

“I will be a hawk when it comes to identifying fraud, waste and abuse in the use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “If confirmed, I pledge not to shrink from difficult or controversial decisions. Those at the Pentagon and in the field know my track record in this regard – ranging from politically-charged matters of personnel policy to the legality of lethal force.”

Carper acknowledged that it is “critically important that Mr. Johnson be allowed to surround himself with a capable leadership team” and that Congress needs to help.

“Currently at DHS, there are 13 presidentially-appointed positions that are without a permanent replacement,” Carper said. “Of these, nine require Senate confirmation. I call this ‘Executive Branch Swiss Cheese.’ As we consider Mr. Johnson’s nomination, we must remember that protecting the homeland is a team sport and those of us in the legislative branch are critical members of this important team. Once Mr. Johnson is confirmed, we must do our part to expeditiously vet and – hopefully – confirm his leadership team, as well.”

Johnson compared the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy to “a large, sluggish aircraft carrier that will, if you let it, just kind of chug along in a certain direction.”

"And I think good leaders need to push it sometimes in different directions, which can be uncomfortable for a lot of people,” he said.

The panel barely pressed Johnson on domestic terrorism issues. He did take the opportunity to say he believes the threat is moving into a third phase that is more diffuse than what has been observed in the past – individuals acting alone as opposed to within a group.

“Those threats in my view are even harder to detect,” he said. “We’re going to have to be vigilant.”