Concerns and Optimism from Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

Apr 7, 2020

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson remembers how the Obama administration faced challenges during the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014. Johnson, who served in that position from 2013 to 2017, says he understands how difficult it is to handle a threat like the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson — partner in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, and a member of the WBGO Board of Trustees — emphasizes that he's learned a great deal from that experience in Washington, D.C.  He spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle.

"In response to a threat like this, first responses aren't always the best reponse. Sometimes a more informed deliberate response to a crisis like this is the better response.  When you're dealing with the spread of a lethal virus, fear and anxiety can take over and can take control.  This thing spread so rapidly no one, very few people could have predicted the full extent as to which this gripped the nation.  From six years ago we learned that the fear and anxiety can spread as fast as the virus and the public looks to its leaders for clear, steady leadership.  They don't expect us to have all the anwers but they do expect us to lead the way and provide clear guidance on how to navigate through this."

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson was born in New York and is a member of the WBGO Board of Trustees
Credit Jeh Johnson

Secretary Johnson says he has concerns about FEMA is responding to the crisis, especially in New York and New Jersey.

"I'm concerned that we're in a bidding war between states and between states and the Federal Government for things like ventilators.  FEMA should be marshalling ventilators nationwide to ensure that they go to the communities like New York, like New Jersey that need them most.  Then after we're through the thick of the crisis then we'll be in a position to see that the ventilators go to other states that me be hitting their own peak at some point in the future.  FEMA's principle role in this and the thing they do best in any disaster is marshalling and deploying resources.  It's my hope that the Government and President is making full use of FEMA's attributes at this moment."

Secretary Johnson is encouraging everyone to heed the restrictions put in place.

"Be concerned for your family and your loved ones, your friends, your co-workers, but stay calm and do what your leaders tell you to do and we will get through this.  It may be a month, it may a couple of months, but we will ge through this."

Prior to becoming Secretary of Homeland Security, the New York native, was General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2009-2012).  In that position, he is credited with being the legal architest for the U.S. military's counterterrorism efforts in the Obama Administration.  In 2010, Johnson also co-authored the report that paved the way for the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell by Congress later that year.

Earier in his career, Johnson was General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force in the Clinton Administration (1998-2001), and an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (1989-1991).  

Johnson is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He has debate at both the Cambridge and Osford Unions in England, and has lectured at Westminster College, Harvard and Yale law shools, the National Defense University, the National War College and all four U.S. military academies.  Johnson is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  He is a graduate of Morehouse College (1979) and Columbia Law School (1982) and the recipient of ten honorary degrees.

Speaking about his place on the WBGO Board of Trustees, Johnson begins with his relationship as a listener. "I've been listening to WBGO for over 20 years.  I'm an avid supporter of WBGO and a huge fan. I believe in the mission of the radio station.  When I was asked to join the board of directors I couldn't say no. I serve on the board of several not-for-profits and this is one I truly believe in.  I'm happy to be part of it."