Update: Tuesday afternoon, the magistrate judge denied the government’s request to detain the defendants pending trial and ordered their release on certain conditions.
The judge cited the defendants’ “sophomoric behavior” to suggest that the pair were not spies. “That’s not how foreign intelligence agents work,” the judge said. “In a case like this, release should be the norm.”
Original story: Before federal agents stormed a luxury apartment building in D.C. last week, the suspects accused of impersonating federal agents already knew they were under investigation.
They had been tipped off by the Secret Service two days earlier.
That misstep by the government has gotten its case off on the wrong foot, rushing prosecutors into a series of embarrassing errors and miscues.
Under the gun by an error of the government’s doing, prosecutors have been scrambling to recover. It hasn’t been pretty.
They’ve misstated facts about the case in open court and in written filings. Public defenders for the accused have pounced, with one accusing the government of “impersonating this case as a national security threat.”
With its investigation still ongoing and the raid rushed by the tipoff from the Secret Service, the Justice Department didn’t had all its ducks in a row before going into court, a rare departure from the usual methodical and laborious preparation of a federal criminal case.
As a result, with the Justice Department not publicly offering an overarching theory of the case that explains the motive for or purpose of the alleged scheme, speculation has run wild.
Some have suggested that the duo were plotting some form of terrorist attack, while others pointed to breaching equipment found in the apartments and inferred that their aim was a kidnapping. Others looked to Ali’s purported travel and saw the hand of Iranian intelligence.
The fevered public speculation and scattered facts fed suspicions that the FBI had stumbled upon a foreign intelligence operation. Initially, the government did not downplay that suggestion, initially telling a federal magistrate last week that “this is not just two people dressing up for Halloween, your honor, this is very serious.”
That’s now changed.
“We have not made any of these grand conspiracy allegations,” Rothstein said on Tuesday. “We do not credit them.”
“But when someone makes these allegations, you have to investigate them,” he added. “The defendants put us in this situation by making all these statements to people, misrepresenting themselves.”
The spectacle of the case has played out over the course of an extraordinary three detention hearings over the past week.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday’s hearing that it became more clear that the tipoff to the defendants by the Secret Service scrambled the criminal investigation and led to several days of embarrassing catching up by the Justice Department.
The DOJ had been investigating the case of alleged impersonation with Secret Service agents as supposed targets. On Monday, Rothstein said, the Secret Service put five of its agents on leave, and an investigator with the service, responsible for protecting the country’s most powerful officials, did something that federal prosecutors did not expect: reached out to the investigation’s target directly.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Josh Rothstein told a federal magistrate that Arian Taherzadeh learned of the investigation from the Secret Service itself during a hearing to convince the judge to detain the pair before trial.
On Monday of last week, Rothstein said, the Secret Service investigator emailed “[email protected]”- an email account associated with U.S. Special Police, the company that Taherzadeh registered and allegedly used to masquerade as an officer in the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations Unit. Taherzadeh responded.
“That caused us on Tuesday to contact your chambers and ask for the complaint to be signed,” Rothstein told federal magistrate G. Michael Harvey.
TPM asked the Secret Service to react to what the federal prosecutor said in court.
“Because this matter is pending adjudication by a federal court, it is not appropriate for the Secret Service to make any comments on prosecutorial statements,” Anthony Guglielmi, chief of communications for the Secret Service, wrote in an email.
Two days after the Secret Service alerted Taherzadeh to the fact that there was an investigation, the FBI stormed the Navy Yard building where he and Haider Ali allegedly impersonated federal agents and stored firearms. Prosecutors accused the pair in court filings of undertaking a scheme to “infiltrate” and “compromise” the Secret Service.
Rothstein conceded at the Tuesday hearing that, were it not for the “inadvertent tip-off,” the government would not have moved so quickly.
The initial facts appeared dramatic and sinister: the duo were accused of giving gifts to Secret Service agents, including a $2,000 AR-15 and free apartments. Ali, one witness purportedly said, had bragged of his ties to the ISI – Pakistan’s foreign intelligence service, while his travel history showed evidence of visits to Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt.
Initially, some of the prosecutors’ missteps appeared minor. At a court hearing last week, Rothstein said that Taherzadeh had traveled to the Middle East.
“I haven’t been to the Middle East at all,” Taherzadeh interrupted.
Later at the hearing, Rothstein admitted that he had made an error, saying that only Ali had traveled to the Middle East, and that Taherzadeh had been to London, once, per the government’s records.
Other missteps suggest that prosecutors have been ready to level accusations at the defendants without fully researching the underlying facts.
Over the weekend, prosecutors suggested in a filing that the duo had “secreted” evidence “from the premises” of the Navy Yard complex.
“These concerns proved true,” prosecutors wrote in the filing, saying a witness was claiming to have received an unsolicited package from the pair containing weapons paraphernalia and several cigars.
Hours later, prosecutors followed up with a “clarification”: in fact, “the firearms cases and cigars might have been items that he had left behind” in a penthouse unit that the pair had rented.
At a hearing on Monday, defense attorneys jumped on the error.
“Had they done any amount of investigation, they would have learned about what they had to file a clarification about,” Petersen said. “He was merely returning items that he had borrowed from someone else.”
Ali’s attorney, Gregory Smith, argued that the packages being returned undermined the idea that there was a gift at all.
“My client told the postal inspector that he was willing to turn himself in,” he said, referencing the investigation’s beginning. “He is not a threat.”
Harvey said he would rule on the matter by 4 PM on Tuesday.