Bryan Whitman, the senior Pentagon official charged with stealing a Capitol Hill nanny’s license plates, was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday and had his top-level security clearance revoked.
It remains unclear whether Whitman, the highest-ranking career civilian in the Defense Department’s public affairs office, had informed his superiors of the alleged crimes — which he was required to do.
The Pentagon’s top public affairs officials were stunned by the news Wednesday that he had been charged nearly a month ago.
Whitman did not immediately respond to a call Thursday morning, and his attorney declined to comment.
A source close to Whitman said the 58-year-old former Army Special Forces officer had informed “appropriate personnel” at the Pentagon after he was charged in May with three counts of misdemeanor theft.
But Gordon Trowbridge, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, said that he had never been told of the alleged crimes. Though he acknowledged that other staffers might have been, reporters had not located any who said they were aware of the accusations before being contacted by The Washington Post on Wednesday.
“In light of the pending criminal case involving Bryan Whitman, he has been placed on administrative leave while the department reviews this matter,” Trowbridge said in an email Thursday afternoon.
The move is significant, according to a senior Pentagon official, in large part because Whitman has now lost his “top secret sensitive compartmented information” security clearance — the highest level attainable in the U.S. government. The official said it could take years for Whitman to regain that status because he will need to start the clearance process from the beginning.
In early April, court records say, Whitman stole two license plates from the car of a nanny who had used a visitor pass to park in his neighborhood, where she cares for a young couple’s 1-year-old son. Two days later, after the plates were replaced, he stole another from the car. Then, in late April, he struck once more — but this time the couple caught him on a video camera that they had mounted inside their home’s front window.
After handing over the plates to police and being charged, Whitman agreed to a deal this week that would lead to the case’s dismissal if he pays $1,000 in restitution, performs 32 hours of community service, remains out of trouble for the next 10 months and stays away both from the nanny and the woman for whom she works.
The source close to him insisted he did not know his target was a nanny. Whitman, who has worked at the Defense Department for more than two decades, thought that the person using the visitor pass worked on Capitol Hill and was taking advantage of the available street parking.
A spokesman for the District’s Transportation Department said that it is legal for nannies to use visitor passes when they are working.
Washington has a lengthy history of parking wars, but Whitman’s status at the Pentagon makes this incident especially strange.
In Whitman’s current role, his LinkedIn page says, he “personally advises the Secretary of Defense and senior leadership on the public impact of proposed policies, programs, operations, and activities of the Department.”
Whitman is a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES), and is considered to be the civilian equivalent of a general. According to the Office of Personnel Management, SES members serve in key leadership positions just below political appointees. They are supposed to provide deep institutional knowledge and continuity, including during administration changes.
Federal pay scales indicate that, at Whitman’s level, he makes at least $170,000 a year.
Whitman was once among the Pentagon’s most visible spokesmen — especially amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — although he has largely retreated from public dialogue in recent years. From 2002 to 2010, according to his lengthy work biography, “he was responsible for all aspects of media operations for the Defense Department.”
He started in his current position — principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs — six years ago. Though it was a promotion, one Defense Department official said Whitman has been sidelined from regular daily operations and most contact with reporters.
He had played an integral role in developing and managing the early days of the U.S. military’s journalist embed program in Iraq, describing himself on his LinkedIn page as its principal architect. Just ahead of the invasion, he and other defense officials met repeatedly with editors and reporters.
Whitman helped manage some of the Pentagon’s most public firestorms. In 2008, he responded to a New York Times exposé that revealed how the Pentagon pushed retired senior military officers to defend the Bush administration’s foreign policy and military strategies in news interviews. Those officers, the Times found, often had ties to defense contractors with financial interests in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whitman defended the program, saying it was a “bit incredible” to think the retired officers could be turned into “puppets of the Defense Department.” The program’s sole intent, Whitman said, was to inform the American people.
The Pentagon ended the program within days of the Times’ report. Congress soon mandated an investigation that found the Defense Department had not acted improperly. Still, investigators did find that analysts who were critical of the administration reported being thrown out of it by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, with whom Whitman worked closely.
Emails later obtained by the website Raw Story showed that Whitman was regularly involved in the program, although he denied running it.
He was known both among colleagues and journalists as a stickler for the rules who was sometimes angered when people broke or bent them. After security was stiffened in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reporters recalled, he was insistent that — per the established guidelines — they come to the Pentagon at least twice a week in order to keep their building passes. That was impossible for those who periodically deployed to cover war zones. But Whitman, they said, wouldn’t budge.
He also didn’t hesitate to voice his displeasure with stories that embarrassed the military, multiple journalists said.
Ray Locker, a senior editor at USA Today, got a call from Whitman in 2009 after the paper revealed that dozens of retired admirals and generals were being paid by the Pentagon to advise the government while they were also employed by defense contractors.
Whitman almost immediately began to scream and curse at him, said Locker, who had never met the spokesman.
“I just thought it was way beyond the pale,” the editor said. “In more than 30 years of doing this, I can count on the fingers of one hand how many people have flipped out on me like that.”
Whitman has lived on First Street SE on Capitol Hill for about 20 years, court records show. His rowhouse is valued by city tax assessors at nearly $900,000.
On April 4, two days before the nanny’s plates were first stolen, a note was left on her front windshield, just next to a guardian angel prayer written in Spanish and displayed on her dashboard.
“I know you are misusing this visitor pass to park here daily,” the April 4 note read. “If you do not stop I will report it, have your car towed and the resident who provided this to you will have his privileges taken away.”
Baffled, the young couple who employ the nanny sent out a message on the community email group asking for the note’s anonymous author to contact them. No one came forward.
Only after the third theft three weeks later — when Whitman was caught on camera — did the couple realize that the culprit lives just around the corner.
On May 2, detectives arrived at his home with a search warrant, and he gave up the plates.
Even with the charges filed and Whitman ordered by the court not to harass the nanny or her employer, his contact with them did not end.
On May 5 — the day of his arraignment — the homeowner reported to investigators that he walked in front of her rowhouse. Then, on the night of May 10 until the next morning, he parked in front of their house.
As part of his agreement with the government, Whitman has been ordered to stay away from the family’s entire block.