Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Governance

Mar-a-Lago Arrest Raises Espionage, Security Concerns

Counterintelligence Investigation Reportedly Launched; Some in Congress Raise Questions
Mar-a-Lago Arrest Raises Espionage, Security Concerns
The Mar-a-Lago club

Federal investigators have opened a counterintelligence investigation into possible spying by the Chinese government following the arrest of a 32-year old woman at the Trump Organization's Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida last week, according to the Miami Herald.

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The newspaper's story, which is based on unnamed sources who are familiar with the investigation, reports that the FBI is taking the lead on the counterintelligence investigation.

Following the suspect's first court appearance on Monday, some security observers and elected officials started raising red flags about the type of access to President Donald Trump and his inner circle individuals have when he's at his private club.

And on Wednesday, some Congressional Democrats wrote to the FBI demanding answers.

Trump weighed in on the arrest late Wednesday, claiming he was "not concerned at all" about security at Mar-a-Lago, CNN reported.

The Arrest

Yujing Zhang was arrested by the Secret Service on Friday for allegedly trying to gain illegal access to the Palm Beach facility and making false statements to agents. Officials discovered that she was carrying four cell phones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive that apparently contained malware.

It's not clear if the malware was purposely installed on the drive or if the USB had been infected without Zhang's knowledge.

Federal officials believe that Zhang is from China, although she was carrying passports that said "Republic of China" - the official name for Taiwan, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Secret Service.

The investigation also involves Li "Cindy" Yang, a South Florida woman who owns several massage parlors, according to the Miami Herald. For the last several years, she had promoted events at Mar-a-Lago in an effort to provide Chinese business executives with access to the club and a chance to mingle with Trump, his family and advisers, the Herald reports.

When she was arrested, Zhang claimed she was at Mar-a-Lago for a social event.

Law enforcement officials are still trying to determine if there's a connection between Zhang and Yang, or if either woman is associated with China's intelligence services, according to the Herald.

Responsibility for Mar-a-Lago Security

While the Secret Service is in charge of security for the president and his family, Mar-a-Lago is a private club that remains open to members and their guests even if Trump is visiting for the weekend.

Because the resort has its own staff and reception area, the Secret Service cannot stop members and guests from entering, although it can screen guests and keep them away from the president and his family, according to a Secret Service statement issued Tuesday.

The Mar-a-Lago staff initially allowed Zhang to gain access the property, following the first physical screening by agents, the Secret Service claims.

After being taken to a second screening area, the staff then denied her further access, called Secret Service agents to investigate and Zhang was arrested, the agency notes.

"The Secret Service does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago; this is the responsibility of the host entity. The Mar-a-Lago club management determines which members and guests are granted access to the property," according to Tuesday's statement.

Congress Asking Questions

Late Wednesday, several Congressional Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray demanding answers about why Zhang was granted access by the resort staff and whether it's reflective of larger issues at the club.

"This latest incident raises very serious questions regarding security vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago, which foreign intelligence services have reportedly targeted," the letter states. "The apparent ease with which Ms. Zhang gained access to the facility during the president's weekend visit raises concerns about the system for screening visitors, including the reliance on determinations made by Mar-a-Lago employees."


About the Author

Scott Ferguson

Scott Ferguson

Managing Editor, News Desk

Ferguson is the managing editor for the news desk at Information Security Media Group. He's been covering the IT industry for more than 13 years. Before joining ISMG, Ferguson was editor-in-chief at eWEEK and director of audience development for InformationWeek. He's also written and edited for Light Reading, Security Now, Enterprise Cloud News, TU-Automotive, Dice Insights and DevOps.com.




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