2 accused of posing as federal agents to be released pending trial

Washington Post Investigative Reporter Carol Leonnig on what past and present Secret Service leaders say about the two men accused of impersonating agents.

A judge has ordered the two men charged with impersonating federal agents in D.C. to be released with conditions until their trial.

Judge G. Michael Harvey made the decision Tuesday afternoon in the case of Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35.

His order will be stayed until 9 a.m. Wednesday, the prosecutors’ deadline to file an appeal.

The two are accused of telling neighbors in their apartment building in the Navy Yard neighborhood, including Secret Service agents, that they were with the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations unit.

In reality, Taherzadeh’s company, USSP, had no connection with the federal government.

Harvey agreed with the defense on their main contention: The two men are facing a single count of impersonating a federal officer, not usually one for which a defendant is held before trial.

“In a case like this, release should be the norm,” Harvey said.

In the D.C. area right now, “There are significantly more dangerous law-enforcement impersonation cases” than what the government has offered so far, Harvey said.

“I’m not saying it’s un-serious; it’s not nothing,” the judge said, adding that the prosecution’s case was strong, especially concerning Taherzadeh. But the judge called the government’s contention that the two posed a danger to the community “almost entirely backward-looking,” based on what they’re accused of doing, rather than what they might do if released before trial.

Taherzadeh and Ali have been “spectacularly outed,” Harvey said. “They’re now infamous.”

Their alleged possession of personal information of the residents of the building “is troubling,” Harvey said, but there was no evidence that they used the information in any way, and that such privacy crimes don’t call for pretrial detention either.

The judge said the contention that Ali would flee, based on his recent travel to the Middle East, was overblown. “His whole life is here,” the judge said, adding that “He has no prior criminal record whatsoever.”

Ali also didn’t flee when he first learned he was being investigated, Harvey noted. He also said that neither man appears to have the money to flee: While they controlled five apartments in the luxury building, a judgment of more than $220,000 has been lodged against USSP because no rent was ever paid.

“That does not sound like something that an undercover agent of a foreign government would do,” Harvey said.

Prosecutors have said that the two men also gave gifts to law enforcement officers, including Secret Service agents, which included the rent-free use of two of the five apartments the men controlled in the Crossing at First Street building, thus potentially compromising national security. And when the apartments were searched, FBI agents found a cache of guns and ammunition, equipment for making identifications, surveillance equipment and more.

Pending any appeal, the two men will be released to the custody of their fathers, both of whom live in Virginia. They’re banned from the apartment complex, all airports and embassies, and they can’t have any contact with witnesses, or each other, without their lawyers. They also have to surrender their passports.

They’re due back in court April 27.

Early session

The third day of the detention hearing began with a morning session which included details of why the pair were arrested well before prosecutors planned to move.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Rothstein said law enforcement officers, including Secret Service agents, a DHS analyst and a naval intelligence officer, let the two “into their circle of trust” and may have talked about travel plans and other sensitive information.

The prosecutor said investigators were determining whether the gifts — including the apartments, rifles, drones, mattresses, flat-screen TVs and more — constituted bribes.

“We are investigating whether or not any bribery occurred,” Rothstein said. He emphasized that there was no evidence of that, and that the charges against the pair are still limited to false impersonation. “Everything else is facts that we’re developing.”

Rothstein pointed out that there’s been no indication that the two actually carried out any law-enforcement functions, such as arresting people or conducting searches.

He added that the most explosive allegation in the case — that Ali told someone that he was connected with Pakistani intelligence — was merely a report that prosecutors were investigating. The Pakistani embassy forcefully denied the assertion, saying it “categorically rejects this false claim.”

“We are not crediting” that statement, Rothstein said. “We are investigating a statement that he made. That’s it.”

Prosecutors say the men had also set up surveillance in the building and had been telling residents there that they could access any of their cellphones at any time. The residents also told investigators they believed the men had access to their personal information.

The two men also had surveillance equipment and a high-power telescope, prosecutors said. The FBI found evidence that they may have been creating surveillance devices and also found a binder with information on all the residents in the luxury apartment building, which is home to law enforcement officers, defense officials and congressional staffers.

The defense

Public defender Michelle Peterson, Taherzadeh’s lawyer, said that there was no evidence her client had asked anyone for any confidential information, or that he had any. She called the allegation that Taherzadeh turned off his phone’s GPS when he learned of the investigation “a complete red herring” — adding, “We all turn our phones’ location monitoring on and off all the time” — and that the gifts he had given the agents were the product of “genuine friendship.”

Gregory Smith, Ali’s lawyer, said his client is an American citizen and not a Pakistani citizen, and couldn’t flee anywhere if he wanted to.

Smith also said of the two men, “These are not partners.” He described Ali as an employee of Taherzadeh, and said, “They are not on the same plane in this.” He added that there was no evidence or suggestion from witnesses that Ali gave anyone any gifts.

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Peterson said during one of the hearings. “They have jumped to the wildest conspiracy theories imaginable over the most scant of evidence.”

The pair face a maximum of three years in prison on the impersonation charges. Ali’s lawyer has pointed out that, as a first-time offender, Ali, under federal guidelines, would face only up to six months — not worth the jeopardy of jumping bail.

The tipoff

So much is still unclear, Rothstein said Tuesday morning, because arresting Taherzadeh and Ali last week wasn’t the plan. “We had to move,” he said, because the defendants had been tipped off.

Later in the hearing, Rothstein revealed, they’d been tipped off by the Secret Service itself.

The two were arrested at the tail end of an investigation March 14, when someone allegedly assaulted a letter carrier in the apartment building where the two lived in the Navy Yard neighborhood.

When an inspector from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service began investigating, several people told them that Taherzadeh and Ali may have seen the incident, since they supposedly had access to video surveillance cameras throughout the building, a binder with the names of everyone in the building and access codes to each apartment.

The USPIS interviewed both men in March, but last week, an investigator with the Secret Service emailed Taherzadeh’s company, USSP, looking for information related to an internal investigation — evidently not realizing that the email would be going to Taherzadeh, who ran the company.

Rothstein said he and his office were in the judge’s chambers the next day, getting his signature on a complaint for the impersonation charges.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up