By Sarah N. Lynch, Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing
WASHINGTON/SPRINGFIELD, Virginia (Reuters) -The U.S. Secret Service has suspended four agents linked to two men accused of impersonating federal law enforcement officers who authorities said gave gifts worth thousands of dollars to agency personnel including one assigned to protect President Joe Biden’s wife.
The two Washington men, Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35, appeared in federal court on Thursday a day after being arrested. Prosecutors said they plan to charge them with conspiracy in a scheme in which they are accused of posing as U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents.
Taherzadeh offered to purchase a $2,000 assault rifle for a Secret Service agent assigned to protect first lady Jill Biden and told other government officials they could have access to what he claimed were “official government vehicles,” the FBI said.
Federal prosecutor Joshua Rothstein said Ali has told witnesses that he has connections to the Pakistani intelligence service ISI. Rothstein did not say whether the United States has evidence confirming that claim. Rothstein also said U.S. authorities have recovered a passport from Ali containing three visas to visit Pakistan and two to visit Iran.
Taherzadeh and Ali were exposed when they gave false statements about being members of law enforcement to a U.S. Postal inspector investigating the March assault of a letter carrier, officials said.
In an interview with Reuters at a house in northern Virginia, Ali’s mother, Zahida, said she was confused when she heard news reports of her son allegedly lying about being a police officer. She said she knew he wasn’t a cop.
“I don’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t tell me, he keeps to himself,” Zahida said. “He’s a good person. A very honest person,” she said. “Someone must have trapped him. He always tries to help people.”
“He has four children. The youngest is only one month old,” she said, beginning to cry.
Prosecutors said the pair had posed as special agents since at least February 2020 and offered a variety of gifts to Secret Service members and at least one Department of Homeland Security employee including rent-free apartments valued at $40,000 a year, iPhones, surveillance systems, a drone, a flat-screen television, a case for storing an assault rifle, a generator and other law enforcement paraphernalia.
Rothstein said the FBI uncovered evidence after searching several apartments tied to the defendants including a loaded Glock pistol, ammunition, components from disassembled guns and sniper equipment.
In addition, it recovered body armor, gas masks, zip ties, handcuffs, firearm storage cases, a drone, Department of Homeland Security patches and law enforcement clothing, DHS training manuals, surveillance equipment and a binder with a list of residents in the apartment complex.
The Justice Department said the suspects tried to recruit at least one person to join what they claimed was an official DHS “task force.”
“Taherzadeh and Ali required that the ‘applicant’ be shot with an Airsoft rifle to evaluate their pain tolerance and reaction,” an FBI agent wrote in a sworn statement. “Subsequent to being shot, the applicant was informed that their hiring was in process. The applicant was also assigned to conduct research on an individual that provided support to the Department of Defense and intelligence community.”
Rothstein said Taherzadeh tried to delete social media posts after learning he was under criminal investigation.
As of Monday, four members of the Secret Service were placed on administrative leave pending further investigation, officials said.
During the interview with the Postal inspector who discovered the scheme, the men claimed to be part of a special police investigative unit involved with under-cover gang work and investigations into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, officials said.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing in Springfield, Virginia; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)