Secret Service on the defensive over allegations agents were duped by men impersonating feds
By Whitney Wild, Priscilla Alvarez and David Shortell, CNN
(CNN) -- A series of embarrassing security lapses involving two men charged with impersonating federal agents have put the Secret Service on the defensive and angered at least one top national security official in DC, sources tell CNN.
In a federal investigation that surfaced earlier this month after a dramatic daytime raid on a luxe Washington apartment, the FBI alleges that the two men duped a number of Secret Service agents, including one assigned to the first lady's detail, as part of a long-running scheme.
But those allegations have also drawn the ire of the top official at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service.
Two people familiar with his thinking tell CNN that Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas felt the initial charges unveiled last week against the two men put unfair scrutiny on the Secret Service. CNN reached out to DHS for comment from Mayorkas.
In court documents and hearings this month, federal prosecutors have accused Arian Taherzadeh and Haider Ali of posing as federal agents and lavishing gifts on law enforcement officers in an effort to ingratiate themselves. The raid uncovered a cache of weapons and tactical gear across five apartments rented by the two men.
Interactions between the two men and a number of Secret Service agents comprised the bulk of an initial charging document written by an FBI agent, and was largely based on Secret Service witnesses. That document, an affidavit detailing the nascent investigation, also included an unusual disclosure of the existence of an internal investigation into two Secret Service agents and two uniformed division officers over their dealings with the men.
But in a detention hearing last Tuesday, a federal judge told Justice Department prosecutors that their arguments were "overblown," arguing that they hadn't established that the men's gift-giving was an attempt to win secrets from Secret Service agents, or that they posed a danger or flight risk.
The two sources familiar with Mayorkas's thinking tell CNN he was concerned about the way the affidavit singled out the Secret Service because it created a misimpression that could cause potential harm to the agency.
These two sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the matter.
Officials from about a dozen other law enforcement agencies were also believed to have interacted with the two men, a law enforcement official told CNN last week.
The FBI affidavit points out a Secret Service witness told FBI agents that officials from other federal agencies could have received gifts from the men, but the case has so far centered on the Secret Service agents' role.
According to a Secret Service agent cited as a witness in the complaint, Taherzadeh "provided gifts or favors for residents, many of whom were members of law enforcement, including the FBI, USSS, or DHS, or employees of government agencies, including the Department of Defense and Navy."
An internal Secret Service review of the matter has so far found no evidence that sensitive digital records were breached or passed to Taherzadeh or Ali, or that either man ever physically entered any protectee locations, a Secret Service spokesman said last week.
"The U.S. Secret Service is taking this matter extremely seriously and conducting an in-depth, methodical review of all aspects of this incident. 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 US Attorney's Office on the criminal investigation and prosecution of the Defendants," the spokesman said.
Panning the prosecutors' arguments
In court last week, Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey allowed the defendants to be released from detention ahead of a trial, dismissing the government's arguments that they were dangerous and posed a flight risk.
The government made "no showing that national security information was in fact compromised," or that "other sensitive information was in fact compromised, or that that was the intent of the defendants in giving the gifts to the federal agents in the first place," Harvey said.
The evidence thus far presented instead suggested that "the defendants' impersonation of federal officers was, as Mr. Ali said in his (FBI) interview, that they 'just wanted to feel on the same level' with the real federal agents," Harvey said.
The FBI declined to comment about the case to CNN.
A former law enforcement official defended the FBI's tactics, saying that they likely just included the evidence they had at the time to make an arrest.
"They're thinking about getting these guys off the street," the former official told CNN.
The Justice Department built the case quickly -- apparently in under three weeks after a random interaction with a postal service inspector put the two men on law enforcement's radar, according to the complaint.
In recent days, investigators have continued to seek information about Taherzadeh and Ali in interviews with neighbors at Crossing, the high-rise building where the pair lived, according to one resident who spoke to CNN.
Several important questions still loom over the case -- including how the pair amassed a cache of weapons and tactical gear found in their apartments and what they hoped to gain from befriending real law enforcement officers living in their building.
In court, Harvey pointed to a default judgment brought by the apartment complex against Taherzadeh for more than $220,000 over unpaid rent.
A CNN review of past lawsuits involving the pair and interviews with people who knew Taherzadeh shows a pattern of unpromised payments and other failed ventures.
In August 2021, a real estate management company for another high-end apartment building in the same Washington neighborhood sued Taherzadeh and another man, accusing them of falsifying their incomes and never paying rent on penthouse apartments.
According to the filing, Taherzadeh applied for an apartment in 2018 and claimed to earn around $70,000 per month in salary.
But his rent checks never cleared.
"He was just a typical debtor who didn't pay his bills, who ran up bills and just walked away from them," Thomas Mauro, an attorney representing the building's management company, told CNN.
In 2017, the two defendants were fighting each other in court over money. Court records show that Ali sued Taherzadeh and his webhosting company AET Holdings for $10 million after Ali claimed he loaned Taherzadeh $1 million and was never paid back.
The case, which was thin on details, was eventually dismissed after Ali failed to serve his complaint.
The next year, another former employee of AET Holdings, Moses Kamai, won a nearly $300,000 judgment against Taherzadeh for unpaid salary and other expenses, although he says Taherzadeh never paid the judgment.
The company, according to Kamai, failed to win contracts because of Taherzadeh's poor management.
"We missed a couple of proposal deadlines because he wouldn't sign paperwork," Kamai said.
At Crossing, many residents have steered their anger and anxiety toward the building's management after they learned through the prosecution that the men had access to building security cameras and a list of the apartment's occupants, two people who live there told CNN.
"This feels like a betrayal," one of the residents said.
Building management has not responded to requests for comment, but in recent days, it has told residents that they are conducting a security audit.
Now out on home detention under the supervision of relatives, both men will not be allowed back in the building, management also told residents.
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