WASHINGTON — Secret Service leaders are downplaying any risk to national security after four of its employees — including an agent assigned to protect first lady Jill Biden — were allegedly hoodwinked by two men impersonating federal agents and plying them with gifts, telling congressional committees and allies that the severity of the breach has been overblown by prosecutors and the media, according to people familiar with the conversations.
But several former Secret Service officials warn that the alleged infiltration of the elite protection agency reveals a major vulnerability extending well beyond this particular case. They said the revelations suggest that agents who had regular access to the White House and the Biden family — and who are supposed to be trained to spot scammers or spies seeking to ingratiate themselves — were either too greedy or gullible to question a dubious cover story.
“If you can compromise Secret Service personnel by cozying up to their agents and their uniformed officers, unwelcome sources can get to the president and the first family,” said Jim Helminski, a retired agency executive and former leader of Joe Biden’s vice-presidential detail.
The case is the latest in a string of embarrassing security breaches and incidents of misconduct involving the Secret Service over the past decade. The scandals have included agents getting drunk and hiring prostitutes on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012; an incident in 2014 when a wounded veteran was able to jump the White House fence and get past dozens of armed Secret Service officers and into the Executive Mansion; and an officer investigated last year after posting comments on Facebook in which she accused of treason the lawmakers who formalized President Joe Biden’s election win.
According to federal prosecutors, Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35, posed as Department of Homeland Security agents and offered two agents and two officers with the Secret Service, as well as one DHS officer, a string of gifts beginning at least in February 2021 and possibly as early as February 2020. The gifts that prosecutors say were accepted included iPhones, surveillance systems, a drone, a flat-screen television, a case for storing an assault rifle, a generator, law enforcement paraphernalia and use of what Taherzadeh characterized as a government vehicle.
The FBI also said the two Secret Service uniformed officers accepted free $40,000-a-year rental apartments from Taherzadeh for about a year in The Crossing, a luxury Navy Yard apartment complex where the two suspects are alleged to have had unusual control over several apartments and where they had set up surveillance. One of the officers told investigators that Taherzadeh claimed DHS had approved extra rooms as part of his operations that the officer could live in free; the other said Taherzadeh claimed another federal law enforcement officer was living rent-free.
The FBI said searches conducted at the building last week found a stash of police weapons, access codes to federal agents’ homes and equipment to create Personal Identification Verification cards that if programmed correctly can be used to access sensitive law enforcement computers. One witness also told authorities that Ali claimed to have ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service, prosecutors said, though officials say they have not found evidence confirming such a claim.
Both men, who are charged with impersonating a federal law enforcement official, have denied any ill intent. Taherzadeh said he had “no intention of compromising any federal agent” and had provided them lavish gifts out of a “desire for friendship,” while Ali said he had gotten carried away in a ruse he did not fully understand, according to documents filed in federal court Monday.
Prosecutors also revealed in court Tuesday that an internal Secret Service investigation inadvertently tipped off Taherzadeh to the ongoing criminal probe before the suspects were arrested, prompting the FBI and prosecutors to rush to get an arrest warrant last week.
A spokesperson for the Secret Service said in a statement the agency has found no damage to national security but takes the actions of the employees involved “extremely seriously.” All four are on administrative leave and their security clearances have been temporarily suspended pending the investigation.
“The U.S. Secret Service is taking this matter extremely seriously and conducting an in-depth, methodical review of all aspects of this incident,” Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. “Although this is an ongoing investigation, we have found no evidence of any adverse security impacts or improper access to sensitive information, systems or protected locations at this time. We continue to work closely with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the criminal investigation and prosecution of the Defendants.”
In their conversations on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Secret Service officials have emphasized the lack of evidence of either foreign involvement or compromised information, according to the people familiar with the conversations, who requested anonymity to reveal details. Instead, agency officials are saying the case amounts to a small group of employees who unwisely let down their guard when befriended by two men who appear to be fraudsters and wannabe cops, these people said.
Some former Secret Service agents, however, say the incident shows how easily someone could target agency staffers to obtain highly classified information about both the president’s movements and national security. They said the agency needs to study what weaknesses in policy or training may have allowed the situation to happen — and how it went undiscovered by the agency for up to two years. The case was uncovered only after a postal inspector was investigating an unrelated alleged assault on a mail carrier at the apartment building, officials said.
“The physical protection of the president and vice president is crucial to the functioning of our democracy,” said one former Obama-era agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about Secret Service vulnerabilities. “We have the first minority woman vice president. Both Biden and Harris are polarizing figures. Now we learn people who have access to … [the White House], Harris and Biden can be duped?”
Prosecutors have emphasized their investigation is in an early stage as they work to understand the potential scope of the alleged scheme and the vulnerabilities it has created within the Secret Service, federal law enforcement and national security communities.
In a Sunday court filing urging the court to detain the two men, an assistant prosecutor to U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves wrote: “Each hour since their arrest, the Government learns more — and scarier — information about how Taherzadeh and Ali abused their fake authority.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors told the court they are now investigating whether any bribery occurred with the offer of such valuable items.
“It concerns us, the types of devices and favors that were given, and whether any may have been bribes,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Rothstein. “As we mentioned, one of them protected the first lady. Others protected the White House and residence. When we have agents who may have been compromised, it causes grave concern for us.”
Elizabeth Alexander, the communications director for the first lady, said the White House does not comment on ongoing investigations and referred questions about the incident to the Secret Service.
But she said in a statement, “The First Family has the utmost confidence in the USSS and is grateful to them every day for their service and efforts to keep them safe.”
Helminski said he sees no obvious damage or danger to Biden and his family so far.
“I would agree it’s not that big a deal, but only because it got stopped before it became a big deal, ” he added.
Helminski and other former agents said several details of the case are particularly worrisome, including the alleged offers of iPhones, Ali’s alleged intelligence claim and the Secret Service employees’ apparent willingness to accept highly dubious claims from strangers.
“The iPhones in my opinion are most disturbing of the items. Portable, [they] can be turned on remotely or carry small explosive device,” Helminski said. “The phones could capture vital information needed to cause intelligence harm to the president and the first family. This can be a serious security threat.”
Former agents also said it was alarming that the Secret Service was in the dark about the alleged ruse and may have never learned about it if not for the separate postal investigation. Some suggested the agency consider increased screening of employees, with yearly polygraphs, as the FBI and military do for sensitive positions.
“The Secret Service’s current safeguards are not enough,” said the Obama-era agent. “No tripwires were activated here.”
Currently, the Secret Service questions agents every five years to renew their top-secret security clearances. The questions are geared to spot problems, such as agents who may be leaking information or have financial or personal problems that make them vulnerable to blackmail. In one case, the agency discovered that a top supervisor on Obama’s detail had been lying to the agency and hiding both long-standing and short-term sexual relationships he had with multiple foreign nationals. Officials only learned of the scope of his cover-up after he failed a polygraph in a five-year security clearance update.
Lawyers for Taherzadeh and Ali say the two had no criminal scheme in mind and that prosecutors “have jumped to the wildest conspiracy theories possible over the most scant of evidence.”
Defense lawyers told the court that immediately after the two men’s arrests, prosecutors had suggested the government would not seek to detain them. But prosecutors changed their plans as the investigation proceeded. They subsequently claimed that Ali, a naturalized U.S. citizen, posed a risk of flight because of his past foreign travel. Ali has traveled at least twice to his native Pakistan, once to Egypt and once to Iraq, although the travel was not recent, Rothstein said.
Ali also traveled to Iran between July 2019 and January 2020, the prosecutor said, adding Friday that investigators sifting through search warrant returns had discovered overnight that the defendant also apparently obtained a Pakistan national identity card in 2019, available to its citizens who live abroad, Rothstein said.
However, prosecutors have backed away from what they now call an “unsubstantiated” allegation that Ali had claimed to one witness that he had connections to Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Pakistan’s embassy released a statement saying Ali has no such connection.
“We have never suggested he [Ali] got funds from anybody in Iran, nor ever suggested he got funds from Pakistan,” Rothstein said Friday. “We have not even credited his statement [of ties to ISI]. But we do have to take his statement seriously, if he claimed to an individual he has a connection to a foreign intelligence service.”
In court Monday, Michelle Peterson, Taherzadeh’s defense lawyer, said that her client “is all over the internet” and made a half-joking remark about how little danger he poses.
“If there is any Secret Service agent or federal officer that could be fooled into believing he could be a federal agent at this point, we’re in more trouble than that,” she said.
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The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager contributed to this report.