Alex Finley is the pen title of a former CIA officer and writer of Victor within the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the battle on terror. Comply with her on Twitter: @alexzfinley.
What was a Chinese language girl doing at Mar-a-Lago together with her pockets stuffed with passports and cell telephones? The March 30 arrest of Chinese language nationwide Yujing Zhang at President Donald Trump’s trip house definitely reads like a juicy spy drama. On the time she was arrested, after altering her story about why she was there, she had on her, along with two Chinese language passports and 4 cellphones, a laptop computer and a USB drive later discovered to include some form of malware. Extra gadgets and $eight,000 in money had been later present in her room at a close-by lodge.
Is Chinese language intelligence trying to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago? The reply to that’s nearly definitely sure. And so is each different overseas intelligence service. That’s simply enterprise as traditional.
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However is Zhang a part of the Chinese language effort?
U.S. regulation enforcement continues to be making an attempt to determine that out. Earlier this month, Zhang was charged with mendacity to a federal officer and coming into restricted property, however prosecutors have mentioned extra prices would possibly comply with. For now, prosecutors are treating Zhang’s case as a nationwide safety matter, in response to the Miami Herald, including that a crew of FBI counterintelligence officers is on the case. Based on the Herald, federal investigators had been already trying into Chinese language intelligence operations in South Florida earlier than this incident occurred. Zhang’s arrest “has despatched the counterintelligence probe into overdrive.”
As a former CIA officer, I’m intrigued by Zhang’s position, however cautious of leaping to conclusions about it, given the restricted details we all know up to now. Listed below are the 5 questions that may assist us decide whether or not Zhang is a bumbling Chinese language spy who bought caught making an attempt to infiltrate the president’s trip lair, or if she is solely an harmless vacationer who loves her hi-tech gadgets.
Why did her cowl story disintegrate so shortly?
Essentially the most primary tradecraft any intelligence officer or asset learns is construct a good cowl story—an evidence of what you’re doing and why, as a way to cowl what you’re actually as much as—and to be prepared to keep up it beneath questioning. Any cowl story will ultimately disintegrate beneath sufficient scrutiny (as a result of it’s, in reality, a lie), however folks educated in espionage know shield their story from collapsing too shortly or too simply.
So how did Zhang do with this? On the first Secret Service safety checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago, she mentioned she was there to make use of the pool. Her story initially labored; the agent waved her in. However she didn’t have a swimsuit together with her, and the Colony Lodge, the place she was staying, had its personal pool. Then, when questioned once more later, Zhang defined she was on the resort for a social occasion, which was not, in reality, scheduled for that day.
If this was an try and current a narrative to cowl nefarious actions, it fell aside extremely shortly. Possibly she was sloppy or poorly ready? That appears odd for knowledgeable intelligence officer.
Maybe Zhang’s pool excuse was a fast and informal line to cross by means of the primary safety perimeter with out many questions. Did she even have a greater cowl story, or possibly a verifiable true story, she was capable of current beneath extra intense questioning? Zhang reportedly underwent four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Secret Service. How did this go? What rationalization did she give for her go to to Mar-a-Lago on this high-stakes setting? Did her rationalization match with solutions she gave when making use of for a visa to enter the nation? Zhang reportedly beforehand traveled to the US, in 2016 and 2017. Does her rationalization for these journeys match info she gave when making use of for a visa, and the way do these journeys match together with her present itinerary and actions?
If Zhang isn’t a spy, or as much as different nefarious issues, why is it that she “lies to everybody,” because the prosecutor mentioned in court docket? Might she merely be confused or did she talk poorly as a result of English will not be her native language? Investigators, significantly those that questioned her, know higher than we do about Zhang’s command of English. The Miami Herald reported that she “appeared to talk English” to a lawyer in court docket and she or he took notes throughout the listening to, however a translator was additionally current.
How would Zhang have operated inside Mar-a-Lago?
The president’s trip abode is a target-rich atmosphere. There are the apparent marks: The president and his internal circle. However these individuals are exhausting to entry. Higher targets is likely to be the multitudes of individuals at Mar-a-Lago who aren’t within the president’s internal circle however who’ve entry to those that are and may affect and glean info from them.
An off-the-cuff observer may additionally collect a load of knowledge just by being current at Mar-a-Lago. Who’s there? Who’s making an attempt to get entry and affect folks? Who interacts with whom? What actions do they take part in? What schedule do they comply with? This might assist a overseas intelligence service goal folks for recruitment as property. It may additionally inform a overseas intelligence service what different nations are working operations there and which people they’re concentrating on utilizing what strategies. That is essential counterintelligence info for any spy company, a window into different nations’ priorities and the way shut they’re to reaching them.
It’s additionally doable Zhang wished to look at the safety state of affairs on the resort, laying the groundwork for some future operation. She may need witnessed how Secret Service and resort safety labored (or didn’t work) collectively and the way freely Trump and his folks transfer round, to find out what sort of entry is likely to be accessible.
Even with out taking some deep cowl, clandestine motion, merely being current at Mar-a-Lago offers a wealth of knowledge to anybody who’s trying.
Or, possibly Zhang simply wished a glimpse of the president?
What’s with all of the money?
In some instances, espionage is a money enterprise. Spies typically pay property for info, and chilly, exhausting money is a simple strategy to pay folks whereas hiding the supply of the funds. Maybe the Chinese language authorities already has property at Mar-a-Lago—among the many workers, for instance—and Zhang was there to pay them.
However Zhang’s greater than $eight,000 value of money (in U.S. and Chinese language foreign money) was present in her lodge room on the Colony Lodge about two miles from Mar-a-Lago, not on her individual. Until she deliberate to enter the resort a second time, it appears impossible she was there to pay an asset for info.
Some vacationers do certainly journey with a great deal of money. Though Zhang has a Wells Fargo account in the US that she may have accessed. And that account raises new questions. When and why did she arrange this account and the way has she used it prior to now? Is her use of this checking account in keeping with the investor and consulting enterprise she claims to run? Or did she set it up years in the past in an try and construct her cowl story whereas laying the groundwork for an intelligence operation? Investigators will attempt to discover solutions to these questions.
Is that this a spy’s assortment of gadgets?
When she was picked up at Mar-a-Lago, Zhang was carrying 4 cellphones, a laptop computer, an exterior exhausting drive and a thumb drive later discovered to hold malware. In her lodge room, investigators discovered 9 USB drives, 5 SIM playing cards and a “sign detector” machine, which may probably be used to detect hidden cameras.
OK, that appears a bit unusual. It’s true that each one varieties of execs (together with many within the monetary sector) do go to nice lengths to maintain their actions safe from prying eyes or just to separate out enterprise actions and private actions. Some folks, for instance, have a piece cellphone and a non-public cellphone. And if somebody travels internationally, they may have a number of SIM playing cards to permit them to have native cellphone numbers.
However an intelligence officer may additionally have a number of telephones and SIM playing cards. Good spies comply with the “one cellphone, one operation” rule. That’s, they don’t name completely different property utilizing the identical cellphone, as a result of then they turn into linked, and key in any intelligence operation is to maintain info compartmented. Very similar to you don’t need to ship non-public texts in your work cellphone, you don’t need communications with a number of property on a single machine.
There may be additionally the query of what sorts of telephones these are. Are they burner telephones, that are pay-as-you-go and never registered to a person and due to this fact not simply traceable again to the purchaser and consumer? A spy would more than likely use a burner cellphone. Or, possibly she was delivering burner telephones to property contained in the resort to make communication simpler? Or are these common telephones, registered in Zhang’s title or her firm’s title? Investigators will definitely run traces on the telephones and SIM playing cards to see in the event that they hyperlink to anybody of curiosity or in the event that they counsel a wierd sample of conduct, equivalent to speaking with somebody in a manner that’s meant to cover the contact.
Thumb drives are fairly regular in enterprise, however malware isn’t. The truth that the primary thumb drive Secret Service checked out had malware on it doesn’t look good for Zhang.
It’s doable that a spy would need to use malware to destroy a community on the resort. However a overseas intelligence service would extra probably be fascinated by utilizing it to collect helpful info. There may be little or no likelihood (if any) that Zhang may have gotten the malware anyplace close to a authorities laptop. However to slide a program into the resort’s community that might enable an intelligence service to see visitor lists, schedules and itineraries, room assignments, and who’s coming and going? Sure, that might be of curiosity.
Is Zhang only one half of a bigger spy scheme?
What the heck is the “United Nations Chinese language Friendship Affiliation”? That is maybe probably the most intriguing a part of Zhang’s story.
Zhang defined that she was at Mar-a-Lago to attend a “United Nations Friendship Occasion” and that she had been invited by a Chinese language buddy named “Charles.” Because the Miami Herald studies, a Chinese language nationwide named Charles Lee promotes occasions at Mar-a-Lago by means of his United Nations Chinese language Friendship Affiliation, which has no precise ties to the United Nations. No such occasion was scheduled at Mar-a-Lago that day, nonetheless.
By the way in which, Li “Cindy” Yang, the proprietor of a therapeutic massage parlor that has been caught up in a intercourse trafficking sting who probably bought entry to Trump, promoted most of the identical occasions as Charles Lee. (A spokeswoman for Yang instructed the Herald she has executed nothing flawed.)
Is Zhang a non-public particular person who, like others, used the affiliation to get into Mar-a-Lago to assist her enterprise? Or is Zhang an remoted case of Chinese language intelligence utilizing the affiliation for a similar objective? Or worse, is the Chinese language authorities utilizing the “friendship affiliation” and its journey packages to funnel spies into Mar-a-Lago (and maybe elsewhere)?
This wouldn’t be exceptional: Intelligence businesses typically use entrance corporations or “associations” to make their actions look benign and to disguise any involvement by the federal government.
In that case, it’s probably that Zhang’s arrest (together with scrutiny of Yang and Lee) simply blew the affiliation’s cowl.
For now, it’s inconceivable to say if Zhang was a confused vacationer, who simply wished a glimpse of the president, or a bumbling Chinese language intelligence officer whose cowl story cracked. However one factor is for positive: Mar-a-Lago is target-rich atmosphere for any actual spy.