Two suspects have been charged with impersonating Homeland Security Investigations Agents (HSI). Authorities say they were able to dupe individuals, including Secret Service and HSI personnel who lived in the same apartment building with them, into believing their identities as federal agents for still unknown reasons.
Arian Taherzadeh and Haider Ali were arrested on April 6 and charged with impersonating federal law enforcement. Neither man has yet entered a plea.
These shocking charges and situation have brought out questions concerning national security, counterintelligence, ethics and the wisdom of federal agents accepting gifts from any individual, regardless of their position.
Gifting in the federal government, for all personnel, is regulated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The rules can vary from agency to agency but generally, the gifting rules are in place to prevent an individual or entity from exercising undue influence upon a federal employee for some type of benefit from the government, for official activities, not personnel.
But many have expressed particular concern with the Secret Service personnel due to their close proximity to the leaders of our government, including the president.
Generally, to work for the Secret Service in any position, an individual must be an American citizen, able to receive a security clearance, pass a background check and meet other physical requirements. The hiring process is rigorous and can typically last over a year due to the depth of the background check.
During that process, in addition to the detailed background check, the Secret Service requires both a physical screening and a polygraph test. The Secret Service is one of the only federal agencies that requires a polygraph test prior to hiring.
The background check requires an individual to provide documentation and answer questions related to every aspect of their life, from birth, through schooling, relationships and finances. These facets of life are checked against computer databases to ensure that what the individual presents is factual and accurate.
At any point along this process, whether during the background or polygraph, if unanswered questions arise, the individual may not be offered a position, which is why the Secret Service typically hires only a few hundred people each year versus the thousands of applicants.
Once hired, the screening doesn’t stop. Due to their national security work, additional security clearance screening occurs to ensure that the individual merits a top secret or better clearance, including that they have no foreign influences. If an issue arises during the security clearance check, they can be denied a clearance and potentially terminated.
Secret Service personnel are also subject to random drug screening and require five-year background updates, which re-covers some of the original background material plus any changes or addition over the previous five-year period. Additionally, the Secret Service and other federal agencies are authorized to conduct random screening of personnel.
While it is still unclear what, if any, nefarious goals of the alleged imposters had, the questions will remain. And while the FBI investigates the men who allegedly posed as federal agent, both the Secret Service and DHS Inspector General will conduct a robust investigation that will identify any potential gaps or security issues resulting from this case and mitigate them.
In 2019, the last non-pandemic year, the Secret Service conducted protective advances for over 7,721 domestic trips and traveled overseas with their protectees during 372 foreign trips with few incidents.
During the Secret Service storied history of success, if a failure does occur, the agency has always attempted to learn and adapt to become better, which is why in the 2014 US Secret Service Protective Mission Panel Report, when other agencies where asked about the Secret Service, the unanimously agreed that when it comes to protection, the Secret Service is “without peer.”
Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served during two presidential transitions. He was also a police officer and in the U.S. Coast Guard.