Secret Service leaders downplay any national security risk after four of its employees – including an agent appointed to protect First Lady Jill Biden – were deceived by two men posing as federal agents and subjected them to gifts, telling commissions and allies in Congress that the seriousness of the violation was exaggerated by prosecutors and the media, according to those familiar with the talks.
But several former Secret Service officials warn that the alleged infiltration of the elite protection agency reveals a great vulnerability that extends far beyond this particular case. They said the revelations suggested that agents who had regular access to the White House and Biden’s family – and who were allegedly trained to detect fraudsters or spies seeking bribery – were either too greedy. or gullible to question a dubious cover-up story.
“If you can compromise Secret Service personnel by reconciling with their agents and their uniformed officers, unwanted sources could reach the president and the first family,” said Jim Helminski, the agency’s retired executive director and former leader of Joe’s vice presidential detail. Biden. .
The case is the latest in a series of embarrassing security breaches and incidents of misconduct involving the Secret Service over the past decade. The scandals include getting drunk agents and hiring prostitutes to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012; an incident in 2014 when a wounded veteran managed to jump over the fence of the White House and pass dozens of armed secret service officers and enter the mansion of the executive branch; and an employee investigated last year after posting comments on Facebook accusing lawmakers of formalizing President Biden’s victory as treason.
According to federal prosecutors, 40-year-old Arian Taherzadeh and 35-year-old Haider Ali are posing as Homeland Security agents and are offering two agents and two Secret Service agents, as well as one DHS employee, a series of gifts starting at a little in February 2021 and probably as early as February 2020. Gifts that prosecutors say were accepted include an iPhone, surveillance systems, a drone, a flat-screen TV, a storage case for a vending machine, a generator, law enforcement supplies and the use of anything Taherzadeh is characterized as a government vehicle.
The FBI also said the two uniformed Secret Service agents had rented free apartments for $ 40,000 a year from Taherzade for about a year at The Crossing, a luxury Navy Yard apartment complex where the two suspects allegedly had unusual control over several apartments and where they have established surveillance. One of the officers told investigators that Taherzadeh claims that DHS has approved additional rooms as part of its operations in which the police officer can live for free; the other said Taherzadeh claimed that another federal law enforcement official was living without rent.
The FBI said searches of the building last week uncovered a cache of police weapons, codes to access the homes of federal agents and equipment to create ID cards that, if properly programmed, could be used. for access to sensitive computers of law enforcement agencies. One witness also told authorities that Ali claimed to have ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, prosecutors said, although officials said they had found no evidence to support such a claim.
Both men, who are accused of posing as federal law enforcement officials, have denied any wrongdoing. Taherzadeh said he “has no intention of compromising any federal agent” and gave them lavish gifts of “friendship desire”, while Ali said he was drawn into a trick he did not fully understand, according to federal documents. court on Monday.
Prosecutors also revealed in court on Tuesday that an internal investigation into the secret services inadvertently led Taherzadeh to continue the criminal investigation before the suspects were arrested, prompting the FBI and prosecutors to hasten an arrest warrant last week.
Men posing as DHS employees pose potential national security risk, prosecutors say
A spokesman for the secret services said in a statement that the agency had found no harm to national security, but took the actions of the officials involved “extremely seriously”. All four are on administrative leave and their security clearances have been suspended until the investigation.
“The US Secret Service is taking this issue very seriously and is conducting a thorough, methodical review of all aspects of the incident,” said Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “Although this is an ongoing investigation, we have so far found no evidence of adverse security impacts or improper access to sensitive information, systems or protected sites. We continue to work closely with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate and prosecute defendants. “
In conversations on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Secret Service officials stressed the lack of evidence of foreign involvement or compromised information, according to people familiar with the conversation, who requested anonymity to reveal details. Instead, agency officials say the case involved a small group of employees who unreasonably abandoned their vigilance when they befriended two men who appear to be frauds and want cops, the people said.
However, some former Secret Service agents say the incident shows how easily someone could reach out to agency staff to obtain highly classified information on both the president’s movements and national security. They said the agency should investigate what policy or training weaknesses may have allowed the situation to happen – and how it remained undetected by the agency for up to two years. The case was uncovered only after a postal inspector investigated an unrelated alleged attack on a postal carrier in the apartment building, officials said.
“The physical protection of the president and vice president is crucial to the functioning of our democracy,” said a former Barack Obama-era agent who spoke on condition of anonymity to be open about the vulnerabilities of the Secret Service. “We have the first woman from the minority, the vice president. Both Biden and Harris are polarizing figures. We are now teaching people who have access to … [the White House]Can Harris and Biden be deceived? “
Prosecutors stress that their investigation is at an early stage, as they are working 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 lawsuit urging the court to detain the two men, U.S. Attorney General Matthew Graves wrote: “Every hour since their arrest, the government has learned more – and worse – information about how Taherzadeh and Ali abused their fake powers. ”
On Tuesday, prosecutors told the court they were now investigating whether there had been a bribe in offering such valuables.
“This applies to us, the types of devices and services that were given, and whether some may have been bribes,” said Assistant Attorney General Joshua S. Rothstein. “As we mentioned, one of them defended the first lady. Others defended the White House and the residence. When we have agents who may have been compromised, this raises serious concerns for us. “
Elizabeth Alexander, the first lady’s director of communications, said the White House had not commented on ongoing investigations and had asked the Secret Service about the incident.
But she said in a statement: “The first family has the greatest trust in the USSS and is grateful every day for their service and efforts to keep them safe.”
Helminsky said he saw no obvious damage or danger to Biden and his family so far.
“I would agree that it is not such a big deal, but only because it was stopped before it became a big deal,” he added.
Helminsky and other former agents said some details of the case were particularly worrying, including alleged iPhone offers, Ali’s alleged intelligence allegation, and the apparent willingness of Secret Service officials to accept highly questionable allegations from strangers.
“I think iPhones are the most worrying thing. portable, [they] it can be turned on remotely or carry a small explosive device, “Helminski said. “Phones could capture vital information needed to damage the intelligence of the president and the first family. This can be a serious security threat. “
Former agents also said it was worrying that the Secret Service was unaware of the alleged cunning and may never have learned about it had it not been for the separate mail investigation. Some suggested the agency consider intensifying inspections of employees with annual polygraphs, as the FBI and military do for sensitive positions.
A man accused of posing as a federal officer says the actions were “for friendship”
“Current Secret Service guarantees are not enough,” said the Obama-era agent. “No cables were activated here.”
Currently, the Secret Service is questioning agents every five years to renew their top-secret security clearances. The questions are aimed at identifying problems, such as agents who may leak information or have financial or personal problems that make them vulnerable to extortion. In one case, the agency found that a senior Obama details supervisor lied to the agency and hid both the long-term and short-term sexual relationships he had with many foreign nationals. Officials learned of the extent of his cover-up only after he failed a polygraph in a five-year security update.
Taherzadeh and Ali’s lawyers say the two did not have in mind a criminal scheme and that prosecutors “jumped to the boldest possible conspiracy theories for the slightest evidence.”