Earlier this week the personal assistant to the President of the United States, John McEntee, was unceremoniously walked out of the White House and fired from his job. Not something you see everyday. The reason given at the time was “security concerns.”

This led to many, including myself, to think for a moment (or more) that McEntee may have fallen victim to the enhanced attention on the handling of classified materials which White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly had enumerated on February 16. As the news cycle continued, we learned more. Apparently McEntee, the one individual who traveled with the president on every trip, known as the “body guy,” was the “subject of an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for serious financial crimes,” according to CNN. McEntee’s security clearance had not yet been adjudicated, and he had operated under an interim clearance since his arrival.

Did the White House clearance process fail?

No, the clearance process worked as it should, albeit perhaps slower than any of us would like.

One would think that if the DHS investigation was known to McEntee, he would have included it in his SF-86, and the White House office of Personnel Security would have flagged this and suggested that an interim clearance would not be in order. For this reason one may conclude that either McEntee was unaware, or the investigation into his financial dealings by a department within the DHS for financial crimes (Secret Service or Treasury both conduct hundreds of investigations each year) was itself being closely held.

Remember, White House background investigations are conducted by the FBI, not DHS, and therefore, unless the investigation was known and highlighted by the applicant there was no way to know, short of the investigator at DHS recognizing the subject of the investigation was in a position of trust at the right hand of the president every day, and raise the red flag. Given we are into year two of the president’s term, it would appear that did not happen.

What did happen, is the system appears to have worked. On February 16, Kelly ordered all those within the White House who continued to be operating off of interim clearances to have their security clearance application individually reviewed by the White House Personnel Security office. This review included engaging with the FBI to discuss any deficiencies or serious items of concern which were percolating out of the background investigations, even if the background investigations were incomplete.

From this learned eye’s perspective, this is how it went down.

  • White House was advised on Monday, March 12 (or shortly before) that there was an issue with McEntee.
  • The issue was briefed to the White House counsel and chief of staff, the decision was made immediately to locate McEntee and escort him off premise.
  • His interim clearance was terminated.

Media reports that the removal of McEntee was made with such swiftness that he was not permitted to return to his office and retrieve his coat.

The system worked. The interim clearance was revoked, and his work which involved access to the president and classified information curtailed.

Where he goes next is not germane to McEntee’s security clearance adjudication.

More to come

With the huge government wide backlog of background investigations, the McEntee example will be replayed multiple times across multiple governmental entities, as those who have been issued interim clearances are having those clearances revoked for cause. Perhaps having little, if anything to do with the discharge of their current duties, but something which is laying in their past, or which was omitted from the SF-86.  What’s makes this case more salacious than others is the proximity to the president and his employment at the White House

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com