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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Fake Federal Agents Case Baffling US Intelligence Experts

Two weeks after FBI agents surged through a luxury apartment building in Washington, DC, and arrested two men who allegedly spent years pretending to be Homeland Security officers, the case continues to baffle even some of the nation’s most experienced counterintelligence experts. Did US investigators stumble onto an Iranian assassination plot or a case of two bozos whose alleged cosplay went horribly wrong?

Earlier this month, the FBI arrested 36-year-old Arian Taherzadeh and 40-year-old Haider Ali for allegedly impersonating officers from the part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that handles national security and customs investigation, known as Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The alleged scheme, which lasted more than two years, was elaborate and would have been expensive to pull off.

According to the FBI’s 17-page arrest affidavit, Taherzadeh and Ali used their pretend HSI affiliations to ingratiate themselves with real federal agents, including uniformed officers from the US Secret Service and special agents from its presidential protective details, as well as other personnel from agencies like the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Attorneys for Ali and Taherzadeh have characterized the case against their clients as “preposterous” and pushing “the wild conspiracy theories.” Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the case, Magistrate Judge Michael Harvey, last week refused the Justice Department’s request to keep the two suspects in jail and downplayed the events, saying there was no evidence that classified information was compromised. Harvey added that “there is no evidence of foreign ties in this case.” But counterintelligence experts say there’s plenty of reason to suspect that the two men weren’t operating on their own—even as the defendants’ alleged behavior was so brazen and bizarre that it seems hard to imagine they were the vanguard of a sophisticated plot.

Most of all, though, the case underscores vulnerabilities to foreign influence in the shadowy and sprawling law enforcement community in Washington, DC, where 17 national intelligence agencies; dozens of private, local, state, and federal police departments; and hundreds of military contractor firms all mix amid an environment that prizes personal ambition and professional networking.

According to court filings, Taherzadeh and Ali’s alleged scheme was uncovered in March when a US postal inspector, investigating an alleged nearby assault on a mail carrier, interviewed the two men who identified themselves as part of a made-up DHS unit they called the US Special Police Investigation Unit. After the postal inspector alerted DHS, the FBI took up the case. But their investigation, according to prosecutors, was still unfolding when the Secret Service, investigating its own personnel’s alleged involvement with the two men, blundered by contacting Taherzadeh, tipping him off. This led the FBI to quickly arrest the men.

As new details have emerged, the case has only grown stranger. The pair had allegedly all but taken control of the luxury apartment building where they apparently lived, known as Crossing DC. Investigators claim the two men had befriended the building’s security personnel, knew the master access codes for the building’s entries and elevators, flashed their badges to other residents, and amassed lists of their fellow occupants, some of whom were federal law enforcement agents.

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Investigators say Taherzadeh and Ali had even been handing out “free” apartments to real federal agents; Taherzadeh allegedly told one uniformed Secret Service officer that he could live rent-free in a three-bedroom apartment in the building—a rent valued at $48,000 per year in court documents—because they had “extra rooms” as part of one of their operations. Another witness, who worked with DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations, reported seeing in Taherzadeh’s apartment “a significant amount of law enforcement paraphernalia, including SWAT vests, a large safe, computers, a high-powered telescope, and internal surveillance cameras.” Others claimed that Taherzadeh had numerous weapons and regularly carried a Glock 19 pistol and that he gifted federal officers all manner of items, including a drone and a TV. At one point, he allegedly offered to purchase a $2,000 assault rifle for a Secret Service agent who worked on Jill Biden’s protective detail.

At another point, the men allegedly tried to recruit a third individual to join their “DHS task force.” Prosecutors claim they shot the recruit with an Airsoft rifle to “evaluate their pain tolerance.” They also allegedly assigned the individual to conduct research on someone who worked with the Department of Defense and intelligence community.

The FBI investigation was barely two weeks old when the Secret Service accidentally tipped off the suspects and spurred their quick arrests. According to court records, searches of the suspects’ apartments and vehicles yielded firearms, law enforcement training manuals, computers, and boxes of police paraphernalia, from patches to tactical vests, along with documents pointing to false names and other fake identities.

“Because of the breakneck pace of the investigation, there are many facts that we still do not know,” the DC US Attorney’s Office argued in court, “but the facts that we do know about the Defendants—that they lied about their identities for years, stored a cache of weapons and surveillance equipment in their apartments, compromised law enforcement agents in sensitive positions, and tried to cover up their crimes—leave no doubt that their release poses a public safety risk.”

The nation’s capital is no stranger to espionage cases, possible terror plots, and national security investigations. When I was editor of Washingtonian magazine, one of our interns discovered—after the FBI sealed off his apartment—that he’d been renting from one of the Russian spies who inspired The Americans. Many in Republican circles came to know Maria Butina, the gun rights activist who tried to infiltrate the National Rifle Association before being arrested, charged with being an unregistered Russian agent, imprisoned, and deported. Then there was the couple, respected long-time State Department employees, who were arrested in 2009 and charged with having spied for the Cuban government for decades, including long after the fall of Communism. There was also the eccentric German fabulist who pretended for years to be an Iraqi general and hosted well-known dinner parties for officials in the Georgetown house he shared with his elderly wife—a scheme that only unraveled after he was charged in her murder.

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Even against a backdrop of such oddities—and while there are regularly cases across the country of wanna-be cops impersonating officers or agents—the scale, duration, and apparent expense of the Taherzadeh and Ali case puzzles.

The FBI has sole jurisdiction in the United States over counterintelligence cases, which are typically among the most complex—and slowest—agents investigate. Such cases, in fact, rarely end with criminal charges and a public trial. They often unfold over years and can rely on classified tools like powerful FISA warrants that are specifically designed for such work, with a focus on how agents can neutralize a foreign intelligence asset without attracting public notice. The FBI followed the Russian “illegals” case for the better part of a decade before finally moving to arrest the spies.

The investigation into Taherzadeh and Ali was in its earliest stages when the accidental tip forced agents to act—haste that apparently means the government wasn’t able to understand the scope of their activity.

“This case was clearly taken down prematurely—the public probably doesn’t realize how much this case wasn’t ready for prime time,” says a former prosecutor who focused on such cases and asked to speak anonymously because he wasn’t authorized by his current employer to comment publicly. “It seems like the federal government doesn’t have a theory of the case.”

In court, the government showed evidence that Ali had visas for travel to Iran and had “made claims to witnesses that he had connections to the ISI, which is the Pakistani intelligence service.” Prosecutor Joshua Rothstein also told the court the pair “created a potential national security risk.” Both Iran and Pakistan have notably unfriendly intelligence agencies, so the news raised even more questions in DC about the men’s possible motives.

“It’s just so odd in general,” says Holden Triplett, a former FBI agent who previously served as the National Security Council’s director for counterintelligence. “It has all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored organization. It’s not clear who they’re working for.”

If they’re working for anyone at all. The Iranian government does not appear to have commented on the prosecution’s implication of its involvement. A spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy told The New York Times in a statement that Ali’s alleged claims of ties to Pakistani intelligence are “totally fallacious.”

At this point, though, intelligence experts are considering any possibilities. While Pakistan is purportedly a US ally, its ISI is widely seen as corrupt and infiltrated by Islamic extremists. Multiple knowledgeable former officials I spoke with speculated that the agency might have been trying—albeit clumsily—to reestablish and recenter its Washington ties in the wake of the US pullout of Afghanistan. “If the Pakistanis did this, it would be in line with how they operate; if it’s Iran it would appear an escalation,” one source said.

As for Iran, there is at least one example of the country attempting to carry out operations inside the US capital itself. In 2011, the Justice Department broke up a plot by the Iranian Quds Force’s IRGC unit to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, apparently while he ate at a fancy Georgetown restaurant, Café Milano. That bizarre plot focused on a DEA informant and a down-on-his-luck, Texas used-car salesman named Manssor Arabsiar. US intelligence doubted the plot was real until Arbabsiar met with a senior Quds Force leader and got the apparent green light for the attack.

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That plot, which was disrupted when Arbabsiar was lured back to the US and arrested, dramatically changed the US intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s capabilities and intent—an assassination on US soil had long been thought to be a red line the Iranian regime wouldn’t cross. And it helped drive the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal that would stop the country from developing a workable device.

One former senior official I interviewed who had worked at three intelligence agencies in his career, and who also requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized by his employer to speak publicly, speculated that if Taherzadeh and Ali were part of an Iranian plot—and no evidence so far suggests they are—it may have been one of several avenues and schemes launched in the wake of the the audacious US assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020.

“We’ve seen intelligence agencies do ham-handed and stupid stuff. It could have fallen into the category of a just not-well-thought-though case,” the former senior official says. “If you’re Iran, and you're upset about Soleimani, you’re going to pull a lot of levers. Maybe they said, ‘It can’t hurt to move this forward.’”

Indeed, as the Arbabsiar case illustrates, the oddity of Taherzadeh and Ali’s alleged actions doesn’t necessarily shed light on whether they were acting on their own or as part of an intelligence operation. “Agencies are not perfect, and different parts of an agency have different levels of competence,” Triplett says.

But the former prosecutor says the sheer weirdness of the case makes him question any foreign connection. He says that many foreign-influence and intelligence cases involve comparatively small amounts of money; the largess of the suspects, while seeming to indicate access to substantial resources, may very well point to the opposite conclusion.

“This is a ton of money. This doesn’t strike me as quiet and surreptitious—this is quite loud,” the prosecutor says. “When you look at some of these similar cases, that's not how this stuff is done at all. There’s a real sloppiness here.”

Regardless of the outcome, experts agree this case illustrates how unprepared most government officials and law enforcement personnel in the nation’s capital are to confront a possible counterintelligence operation—even though the FBI estimates that there are more than 100 foreign intelligence agencies operating in the United States, from allies and adversaries alike.

“The vast majority of US government and agencies are unprepared for counterintelligence,” Triplett says. “There are permissive environments in the world, and DC is definitely one of them. The number of foreign intelligence groups that are running around DC—and the US generally—is enormous. There’s all sorts of networking, influence peddling—it’s all perfect for intelligence operations.”

The fact that Secret Service, NCIS, and even DHS personnel were apparently fooled about the authenticity of Taherzadeh and Ali doesn’t actually surprise experts in the field. There’s a human tendency to accept people are who they say they are.

“Outside of the FBI and certain intelligence agencies, the average federal law enforcement agent is not trained very much on counterintelligence matters,” says the senior official. “If they are, it’s an annual mandatory training and very high-level. They’re focused on their work—not thinking about how they’re a possible target of a foreign intelligence agency. If you’re an average officer in these agencies, you’re not thinking about Iranian intelligence. Your radar is not up.”

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As the senior official says, “In law enforcement and intelligence, they engage in quirky characters—informants, people with ulterior motives, even partially criminal elements. There’s often a greater tolerance—you’re really not sure who’s who. You might just say, ‘I don’t know how they roll over there at another agency—they seem legit, they have the equipment, they talk the talk.’”

The former prosecutor says that the level of personal ambition, the culture of professional networking that permeates the capital, and the secrecy required of many jobs also makes counterintelligence tricky. People who work around national security become used to vague answers about the employment or work of even close colleagues. “In DC, you just bump into people. There are so many agencies and groups, you just take people’s words for it,” the prosecutor says, adding that such ordinary mystery adds a perfect layer of cover to more underhanded schemes. “There’s a ton of foreign influence going on—some of it is fantastical and far-fetched, and some of it is just normal influence peddling.”

The former senior official, in fact, lamented that when he started reading about the case, the first thing that jumped out was the sheer stupidity and cluelessness of seemingly everyone allegedly involved—the suspects and the victims. And no matter how the case may eventually be resolved, he could already sense how the US government will respond: by requiring more counterintelligence training for national security employees. “There’s another set of mandatory training that’s going to be added to everyone,” he joked. “Everyone else is going to pay for these idiots.”


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