WASHINGTON – It may not have ignited the kind of firestorm that followed revelations of Secret Service agents consorting with prostitutes before then-President Barack Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012.
Nor does it quite rank with the stunning breach of security two years later when an emotionally troubled Army veteran scaled a White House perimeter fence and burst through the mansion’s North Portico doors before being tackled in the ceremonial East Room.
Yet last month's arrests of two men, accused of masquerading as federal agents while duping Secret Service members into accepting free housing and thousands of dollars in prohibited gifts, raised questions about public confidence in a law enforcement institution that has been haunted by episodes of misconduct, security lapses and staffing strains for the past decade.
Almost every major breakdown has been followed by calls for increased training, and a report this year by Congress' watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, found the agency was unable to meet enhanced training levels recommended by a special committee after the White House breach in 2014.
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John Magaw, a former Secret Service director who grew up in the agency, did not disguise his disappointment while considering the bizarre case of the two alleged imposters who compromised two Secret Service agents and two officers assigned to the Uniformed Division, including an agent assigned to first lady Jill Biden's protective detail.
The arrests of Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35, have not revealed a breach of classified systems or a credible threat to a protected official, but Magaw said the episode strikes at the core of every officer and agent’s mission: to serve as a guardrail against vulnerability.
"This is much different than the others," Magaw said, referring to instances of overt agent misconduct and security breaches. "But it shows that apparently not much has been learned since 2012. I am absolutely aghast. This doesn’t happen without some neglect in the system."
Jonathan Wackrow, a 14-year agent who served on Obama's protective detail, said the ruse represents a step back from the agency's efforts to shore up weaknesses exposed in Colombia.
"The service spent 10 solid years focusing on issues related to integrity," Wackrow said. "This story basically opened up the wound from 10 years ago."
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Secret Service Deputy Director Faron Paramore, in an interview with USA TODAY, rejected comparisons to past missteps as misplaced and defended the service's training regimen that directly addresses potential insider threats and attempts at infiltration.
"Cartegena was 10 years ago – 10 years ago," Paramore said, indicating that the agency had moved beyond that episode. "It (last month's incident) is something that we're going to have to look at. But clearly, I would argue, we've got the training; we have got the training."
Meeting the enhanced training recommendations outlined by the special panel is largely linked to reaching longer-term staffing goals at least a year away, the agency said.
"There's probably always room for improvement in anything you do," Paramore said. "But when I look at the type of training here, the insider threat training, the counterintelligence awareness training ... it seems like it's pretty robust."
Paramore declined to comment on the four members linked to last month's incident, though he maintained that "all employees of the United States Secret Service are required to undergo annual training for insider threat detection, social engineering, ethics compliance and integrity."
'They tricked people'
When court documents supporting the charges against Taherzadeh and Ali were unsealed this month, the details were alarming.
In what appeared to be an effort to infiltrate the Secret Service, federal prosecutors alleged, Taherzadeh and Ali posed as Department of Homeland Security agents since 2020. As part of the scheme, Taherzadeh allegedly provided two Secret Service officers and a DHS employee with more than $40,000 in rent-free apartments at an upscale complex in Washington, along with smartphones, surveillance systems, a flat-screen television and assorted law enforcement paraphernalia.
Prosecutors asserted that Taherzadeh told the officers the DHS approved the apartments as part of his work. At the time, the documents stated, the suspects controlled five units in the Navy Yard neighborhood building known as the "Crossing" that boasts of a rooftop infinity pool and spa services.
Separately, Taherzadeh allegedly offered to purchase a $2,000 rifle for a Secret Service agent assigned to the first lady's protective detail.
Perhaps most concerning was a reference to Ali, who according to court documents, told at least one witness he had ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Last month, both suspects pleaded not guilty during virtual court appearances in Washington. Although there has been no evidence linking Ali to the Pakistani ISI, the mere suggestion set off alarms that have yet to be fully quieted as a grand jury investigates whether the scheme extended beyond the aspirations of wannabe cops.
Only Taherzadeh and Ali have been charged in the criminal case, yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Rothstein offered a blunt assessment of the case during a court hearing that could have served as a direct warning to the Secret Service.
"They (Taherzadeh and Ali) tricked people whose job it is to be suspicious of others," Rothstein argued last week during a detention hearing for the pair.
The four Secret Service members were placed on leave, and officials said the agency is cooperating with the inquiry.
A broader probe of the agents and officers' conduct is pending, while the criminal investigation continues. Paramore said a preliminary review of the incident found no apparent breaches of agency systems.
"They were never asked for any information," Paramore said. "There was never any type of quid pro quo – of any type."
After the service's link to the incident was disclosed, Secret Service Director James Murray issued an agencywide memo, characterizing the matter as a "stark reminder" of the need for operational security.
"The privilege and honor of serving in our agency, where we have access to sensitive information, comes with the responsibility to constantly safeguard that information," Murray wrote, referring to the agency's training protocols. "Even the most mundane details of our work may prove to be useful to an adversary.
"We must never forget that maintaining public trust and confidence in the Secret Service is absolutely vital to the success of our mission. Therefore, we must always honor our oath and act in a manner that embodies duty, justice, courage, honesty, and loyalty," the director said. "These principles are non-negotiable."
Though Paramore said the memo urged agents and officers to guard against possible attempts at infiltration, he reasserted that the agency had "no indication that our individuals were asked for any information whatsoever."
'The problem is training'
Whatever unfolds in the criminal case, the alleged duping of Secret Service personnel highlights the need for better training at the agency, experts said, a shortfall that has plagued successive directors and presidential administrations for at least a decade.
“The heart of the problem is training. There obviously was a degree of stupidity and naivete, but there are supposed to be checks and balances to weed out those vulnerabilities,” said Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican congressman from Utah who led inquiries into the Secret Service for several years before he left office in 2017.
In 2014, after a man armed with a knife jumped the fence and made it into the White House before the Secret Service apprehended him, an outside panel found “a catastrophic failure in training” led to the critical security breach.
The incident came two years after more than a dozen Secret Service personnel were implicated in a prostitution scandal, when off-duty agents brought prostitutes to their hotel after a night of drinking in Cartagena, Colombia.
The panel convened after the fence-jumping breach and recommended beefed up security around the White House and a series of improvements to Secret Service management, recruitment and training.
In the more than seven years since, the agency has yet to implement a half-dozen of the recommendations, including enhancements to training, the GAO found in a report issued in January.
The panel said agents assigned to protect the president and vice president should spend two weeks of every eight – or 25% of their on-duty time – on training while those in the Uniformed Division should spend at least 10% of their time training.
Since then, the protective divisions increased time spent on training but haven’t gone beyond 7.5% on average, the GAO said. In 2021, the agency cut its target for protective agents in half to 12% – “given the availability of resources” – and said it planned to meet it by 2025. The uniformed division hasn’t met its target – spending 7.1% in training on average in 2019 and 2020.
Paramore said the enhanced training recommendations issued by the special panel were based on the agency reaching longer-term staffing goals, though the target of 9,595, is not expected to be hit until 2026 or early 2027.
Though the deputy director said the agency was "absolutely committed" to reaching the full staffing goal, he said the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the effort.
"For several months in 2020, the pandemic kind of shut us down across the board," Paramore said.
He said the agency sought to make up ground by moving parts of the recruiting program online, participating in "hundreds" of career fairs to kick-start the process anew.
This year, Paramore said, the agency aims to add 455 agents, 275 uniform officers and 255 support staffers.
The hiring effort can be painstaking. For every 250 applicants for special agent positions, officials said, only one agent is typically hired after a process that includes background checks and a polygraph examination.
Paramore said the recruiting drive plays out amid a hyper-competitive job market.
"We're not going to lower our standards," he said. "Our mission is too important, too critical."
Even as the Secret Service moved to make improvements, the work and judgment of some personnel continued to raise questions. In 2019, a Chinese national carrying a cache of electronics, including a malware-infected thumb drive, was allowed through a Secret Service checkpoint and into President Donald Trump's Mar-a Lago resort in Florida before being apprehended. An agent dated Donald Trump Jr.’s wife, and another got inappropriately close to Tiffany Trump, according to a book by Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig.
“There's no excuse at this point,” Chaffetz said of the agency’s failures after so many years to implement basic safeguards and training targets. “They had plenty of money, but management is unwilling to actually make it happen.”
Committed to review
More than two weeks after the accused imposters were arrested, the case has drawn increased scrutiny, including from a federal magistrate who rejected the government's request to detain them pending trial.
U.S. Magistrate G. Michael Harvey delivered a sharp counterpoint to the government's case, saying there is no evidence that the two pose a national security risk or made a "nefarious" attempt to infiltrate the Secret Service.
"There has been no showing that national security information has been compromised," Harvey ruled, casting a wary assessment on the government's criminal case while further shrouding a motive to compromise the agency's officers and agents.
Harvey took special aim at the government's claim that the two suspects had the wherewithal to fund an organized infiltration operation.
The magistrate noted that the owners of the upscale downtown apartment complex where the two suspects allegedly controlled five apartment units had obtained judgments against the suspects for thousands of dollars in unpaid rent and other debts.
Some of the most tantalizing aspects of the government's case were called into question by the judge.
Harvey said the government's references to Ali's foreign travel and alleged claims of a connection to Pakistan's intelligence agency were overstated.
The judge said there was no "reliable evidence" that a foreign government provided financing or supported the suspects and their outreach to the Secret Service.
"There does appear to be a lot of bravado here," Harvey said.
Whatever comes of the criminal case, analysts said, the Secret Service will be left with an equally serious responsibility to address the actions of its own members.
"This was a very long, drawn out engagement," former agent Wackrow said, referring to the scheme that spanned nearly two years. "There was a level of sophistication to the cover story. They wore familiar uniforms, they used the same language, they were familiar with the nomenclature. I think the more appropriate question is not how could they be duped but how did they not get duped.
"These are not just people who put a blue light on the dashboard to pull people over," he said. "But the anomalous act that should have raised suspicion was the offer of a free place to live. That's just forbidden. It requires a major look. Hopefully, the result is little damage and not a systemic problem. But you don't get that answer unless you make the effort."
Paramore said the agency is committed to a full review: "What I can say is that the Secret Service is taking this extraordinarily seriously and from a holistic review to ensure that ... we are providing the requisite accurate training that is pertinent to this type of situation.
"By all accounts, the training that we are providing to our workforce addresses" the most recent incident, he said. "We are constantly reminding our employees of the importance of this, be it domestically or overseas and across the entire agency."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Arrests of accused imposters have ex-Secret Service officials concerned