The disparity between the defense secretary and President Trump added another twist to an ever-evolving explanation for a strike on an Iranian general that led to the brink of war.
They had to kill him because he was planning an “imminent” attack. But how imminent they could not say. Where they could not say. When they could not say. And really, it was more about what he had already done. Or actually it was to stop him from hitting an American embassy. Or four embassies. Or not.
For 10 days, President Trump and his team have struggled to describe the reasoning behind the decision to launch a drone strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces, propelling the two nations to the brink of war. Officials agree they had intelligence indicating danger, but the public explanations have shifted by the day and sometimes by the hour.
On Sunday came the latest twist. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was never shown any specific piece of evidence that Iran was planning an attack on four American embassies, as Mr. Trump had claimed just two days earlier.
“I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Mr. Esper said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” But he added: “I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
The sharp disparity between the president and his defense secretary only added to the public debate over the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran’s most important general and whether there was sufficient justification for an operation that escalated tensions with Iran, aggravated relations with European allies and prompted Iraq to threaten to expel United States forces. General Suleimani was deemed responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in the Iraq war more than a decade ago, but it was not clear whether he had specific plans for a mass-casualty attack in the near future.The Trump Administration’s Fluctuating Explanations for the Suleimani Strike
While agreeing that General Suleimani was generally a threat, Democrats in Congress, as well as some Republicans, have said the administration has not provided evidence even in classified briefings to back up the claim of an “imminent” attack, nor has it mentioned that four embassies were targeted. Even some Pentagon officials have said privately that they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting that a large-scale attack was in the offing.
But senior government officials with the best access to intelligence have insisted there was ample cause for concern even if it has not been communicated clearly to the public. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who were both appointed by Mr. Trump but are career officials without a political history — have said privately and forcefully that the intelligence was compelling and that they were convinced a major attack was coming.
The challenge for the Trump administration is persuading the public, which has been skeptical about intelligence used to justify military action since President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on what turned out to be inaccurate intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Trump himself has made clear in other circumstances that he does not trust the intelligence agencies that he is now citing to justify his decision to eliminate General Suleimani. Moreover, given his long history of falsehoods and distortions, Mr. Trump has his own credibility issues that further cloud the picture. All of which means the administration’s failure to provide a consistent explanation has sown doubts and exposed it to criticism.
“If indeed the strike was taken to disrupt an imminent threat to U.S. persons — and that picture seems to be getting murkier by the minute — the case should be made to Congress and to the public, consistent with national security,” said Lisa Monaco, a former senior F.B.I. official and homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Failure to do so hurts our credibility and deterrence going forward.”
Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack. Instead, C.I.A. officers described a “mosaic effect,” multiple scraps of information that came together indicating that General Suleimani was organizing proxy forces around the region, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, to attack American embassies and bases.
Several officials said they did not have enough concrete information to describe such a threat as “imminent,” despite the administration’s assertion, but they did see a worrying pattern. A State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word “imminent” because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.
“I have not seen the intelligence, just to be clear, but it is sometimes possible for the reporting of planned attacks to be very compelling even without specificity of time, target or method,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting C.I.A. director. “In a sense, that is the story of 9/11. Our reporting gave us high confidence that a big attack was coming — and we so warned — but we were unable to nail down key details.”
Mr. McLaughlin said that the administration may well have had intelligence adequate to compel action, but that it was a separate question whether killing General Suleimani was the most effective response, as opposed to hardening targets or choosing a less provocative option.
John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer for the National Security Council and later the State Department under Mr. Bush, said the president would have legal authority to strike under the Constitution whether or not there was fear of an imminent attack.
But under the United Nations Charter, the United States cannot use force in another country without its consent or the authority of the Security Council except in response to an armed attack or a threat of an imminent armed attack. “So under international law, the attack on Suleimani would not have been lawful unless he presented an imminent threat,” Mr. Bellinger said.
Claims that an imminent attack could take “hundreds of American lives,” as Mr. Pompeo put it right after the drone strike, have also generated doubts because no attack in the Middle East over the past two decades, even at the height of the Iraq war, has ever resulted in so many American casualties at once in part because embassies and bases have become so fortified.
The contrast in descriptions of what the administration knew and what it did not came in quick succession on a single Fox News show last week.
On Thursday night, Mr. Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an “imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he told the host, Laura Ingraham.
The next day, in a separate interview, Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham that in fact he did know where. “I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he said.
That left administration officials like Mr. Esper in an awkward position when they hit the talk show circuit on Sunday. While the defense secretary revealed on CBS that he had not seen intelligence indicating four embassies were targeted, he sounded more supportive of Mr. Trump’s claim on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“What the president said in regard to the four embassies is what I believe as well,” he said, seeming to make a distinction between belief and specific intelligence. “And he said he believed that they probably, that they could have been targeting the embassies in the region.”
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, played down Mr. Trump’s claim of specific, imminent threats to four American embassies in the region.
“Look, it’s always difficult, even with the exquisite intelligence that we have, to know exactly what the targets are,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We knew there were threats to American facilities, now whether they were bases, embassies — you know it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
“But,” he added, “we had very strong intelligence.”
Senator Mike Lee of Utah, one of the administration’s most outspoken Republican critics after the strike, said on CNN that he worried about the quality of the information that national security officials were sharing with Congress and had not “been able to yet ascertain specific details of the imminence of the attack.”
“I believe that the briefers and the president believed that they had a basis for concluding that there was an imminent attack, I don’t doubt that, but it is frustrating to be told that and not get the details behind it,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi struck a similar tone, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “I don’t think the administration has been straight with the Congress of the United States” about the reasons for killing General Suleimani.
On “Face the Nation,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the president and his top aides of “fudging” the intelligence.
“Frankly, I think what they are doing is overstating and exaggerating what the intelligence shows,” Mr. Schiff said. Officials briefing the so-called Gang of Eight top congressional leaders never said that four embassies were targeted, he added. “In the view of the briefers, there was plotting, there was an effort to escalate being planned, but they didn’t have specificity.”
A recent interview given by a former high-ranking official in Israeli military intelligence has claimed that Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual blackmail enterprise was an Israel intelligence operation run for the purpose of entrapping powerful individuals and politicians in the United States and abroad.
Ben-Menashe says that well after the introduction, though again he does not specify what year, Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein began a sexual blackmail operation with the purpose of extorting U.S. political and public figures on behalf of Israeli military intelligence. He stated:
In this case what really happened, my take on it, in the later thing, is that these guys were seen as agents. They weren’t really competent to do very much. And so they found a niche for themselves — blackmailing American and other political figures.”
He then confirmed, when prompted, that they were blackmailing Americans on behalf of Israeli intelligence.
In response to his statement, Zev Shalev replied, “But, you know, for most people it’s hard for them to think of Israel as being … blackmailing their leaders in the United States, it’s a very …” at which point, Ben-Menashe interrupted and the following exchange took place:
Ari Ben-Menashe: You’re kidding? [laughs]…. It was quite their M.O. Sleeping around is not a crime, it may be embarrassing, but it’s not a crime, but sleeping with underage girls is a crime.
Shalev: It was a crime in 2000 as well, but they let him off that…
Ben-Menashe: And that it is [why] always so he [Epstein] made sure these girls were underage.
In addition, when Shalev asked Ben-Menashe about the relationship between Jeffrey Epstein and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Ben-Menashe stated “After a while, you know, what Mr. Epstein was doing was collecting intelligence on people in the United States. And so if you want to go to the U.S. if you’re a high-profile politician you want to know information about people.” Ben-Menashe subsequently stated that Barak was obtaining compromising information (i.e., blackmail) that Epstein had acquired on powerful people in the United States.
PROMIS, sex, and blackmail
If Robert Maxwell did recruit Epstein and bring him into the “family business” and the world of Israeli intelligence, as Ben-Menashe has claimed, it provides supporting evidence for information provided to MintPress by a former U.S. intelligence official, who chose to remain anonymous in light of the sensitivity of the claim.
This source, who has direct knowledge of the unauthorized use of PROMIS to support covert U.S. and Israeli intelligence projects, told MintPress that “some of the proceeds from the illicit sales of PROMIS were made available to Jeffrey Epstein for use in compromising targets of political blackmail.” As was noted in a Mintpress series on the Epstein scandal, much of Epstein’s funding also came from Ohio billionaire Leslie Wexner, who has documented ties to both organized crime and U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
After the PROMIS software was stolen from its rightful owner and developer, Inslaw Inc., through the collusion of both U.S. and Israeli officials, it was marketed mainly by two men: Earl Brian, a close aide to Ronald Reagan, later U.S. envoy to Iran and close friend of Israeli spymaster Rafi Eitan; and Robert Maxwell. Brian sold the bugged software through his company, Hadron Inc., while Maxwell sold it through an Israeli company he acquired called Degem. Before and following Maxwell’s acquisition of Degem, the company was a known front for Mossad operations and Mossad operatives in Latin America often posed as Degem employees.
With Maxwell — Epstein’s alleged recruiter and father of Epstein’s alleged madam — having been one of the main salespeople involved in selling PROMIS software on behalf of intelligence, he would have been in a key position to furnish Epstein’s nascent sexual blackmail operation with the proceeds from the sale of PROMIS.
This link between Epstein’s sexual blackmail operation and the PROMIS software scandal is notable given that the illicit use of PROMIS by U.S. and Israeli intelligence has been for blackmail purposes on U.S. public figures and politicians, as was described in a recent MintPress report.
Can an ex-spy be trusted?
When dealing in the world of deception and intrigue that defines intelligence operations, it is often difficult to determine whether any individual linked to an intelligence agency is telling the truth. Indeed, in the United States, there are examples of elected intelligence officials committing perjury and lying to Congress on several occasions with no consequences, and of intelligence officials feeding politically motivated and untrue information to agency assets in the media.
So, are Ari Ben-Menashe’s claims regarding Epstein and the Maxwells trustworthy? In addition to the aforementioned, corroborating information for his claims, a review of Ben-Menashe’s post-intelligence career suggests this is the case.
Prior to his arrest in November 1989, Ben-Menashe was a high-ranking officer in a special unit of Israeli military intelligence. He would later claim that his arrest for attempting to sell American-made weapons to Iran was politically motivated, as he had threatened to expose what the U.S. government had done with the stolen PROMIS software if the U.S. did not cease providing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with chemical weapons. Ben-Menashe was later acquitted when a U.S. court determined that his involvement in the attempted sale of military equipment to Iran was done on behalf of the Israeli state.
After his arrest, Ben-Menashe was visited in prison by Robert Parry, the former Newsweek contributor and Associated Press reporter who would later found and run Consortium News until his recent passing last year. Parry remembered that, during that interview, “Ben-Menashe offered me startling new information about the Iran-Contra scandal, which I thought that I knew quite well.”
Israel’s government immediately began to attack Ben-Menashe’s credibility following his interview with Parry, and claimed that Ben-Menashe had never worked for Israeli intelligence. When Parry soon found evidence that Ben-Menashe had indeed served in Israeli military intelligence, Israel’s government was then forced to admit that he had worked for military intelligence, but only as a “low-level translator.” Yet, the documentation Parry had uncovered described Ben-Menashe as having served in “key positions” and performed “complex and sensitive assignments.”
A year later, Ben-Menashe would be interviewed by another journalist, Seymour Hersh. It would be Ben-Menashe who first revealed to Hersh secrets about Israel’s nuclear program and the fact that British media mogul Robert Maxwell was an Israeli spy, revelations that Hersh would not only independently corroborate but include in his book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. Hersh was then sued by Robert Maxwell and the Maxwell-owned Mirror Group for libel. The case was later settled in Hersh’s favor, as the claims Hersh had made were true and not libelous. As a result, the Mirror Group paid Hersh for damages, covered his legal costs, and issued him a formal apology.
After Ben-Menashe’s interviews by Hersh and Parry, Israel’s government was apparently concerned enough about what Ben-Menashe would tell congressional investigators that it attempted to kidnap him and bring him back to Israel to face state charges, much like Israeli intelligence had done to Israel’s nuclear-weapons whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. The plan was foiled largely thanks to Parry.
Parry, who broke many key stories related to the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and beyond, was tipped off by a U.S. intelligence source about a joint U.S.-Israel plan to have Ben-Menashe first be denied entry to the United States on his planned trip to give congressional testimony. Per the plan, Ben-Menashe would be denied entry to the U.S. in Los Angeles and then be deported to Israel, where he would have stood trial for “exposing state secrets.” Parry called Ben-Menashe and convinced him to delay his flight until he secured a guarantee for safe passage from the U.S. government.
Ben-Menashe subsequently gave a sworn statement to the House Judiciary Committee that mostly focused on U.S.-Israel collusion regarding the theft and creation of a “backdoor” into the PROMIS software. Ben-Menashe offered to name names and provide corroborating evidence for several of his claims if he was offered immunity by the committee, which, for whatever reason. declined that request.
Prior to the conclusion of the Hersh “libel” trial, which would later uphold Ben-Menashe’s claims regarding Robert Maxwell’s Mossad activities as true, there was a concerted effort in the U.S. press to downplay Ben-Menashe’s credibility. For instance, Newsweek — in an article on Ben-Menashe entitled “One Man, Many Tales” — claimed that “inconsistencies may undermine Ben-Menashe’s testimony in the British courtroom proceedings,” citing inconsistencies from sources in Israel’s government and Israeli intelligence as well as Ben-Menashe’s ex-wife and Israeli journalist Shmuel (or Samuel) Segev, a former IDF colonel. It goes without saying that such sources had much to gain from any effort to discredit Ben-Menashe’s claims.
According to Parry, this media campaign, which employed American journalists with close ties to Israel’s government and intelligence agencies, was very successful “in marginalizing Ben-Menashe by 1993, at least in the eyes of the Washington Establishment.” After a years-long media campaign to discredit Ben-Menashe, “the Israelis seemed to view him as a declining threat, best left alone. He was able to pick up the pieces of his life, creating a second act as an international political consultant and businessman arranging sales of grain.” The effort to marginalize Ben-Menashe has continued well into recent years, with mainstream news outlets still referring to him as a “self-described ex-Israeli spy” — despite the well-documented fact that Ben-Menashe worked for Israeli intelligence — as a means of downplaying his claims regarding his time in Israel’s intelligence service.
After the conclusion of the Hersh libel trial, Ben-Menashe became an international political consultant who “surrounded his far-flung business activities in secrecy and got involved with some controversial international figures, such as Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe,” and
“conducted his international consulting business … in a wide variety of global hotspots, including conflict zones,” according to Parry. In addition to Mugabe, Ben-Menashe has also recently come under fire for his consulting work on behalf of Sudan’s military junta and Venezuelan opposition politician Henri Falcón.
Ben-Menashe has also maintained ties to several different intelligence services and eventually became a controversial whistleblower whose information led to the arrest of the former head of Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee, Arthur Porter.
As far as his character is concerned, Parry noted that Ben-Menashe could often be “his own worst enemy” and that, even though Parry considered his information regarding Iran-Contra and PROMIS reliable and noted that much of it was later corroborated, he “often compound[ed] his media problem by treating journalists in a high-handed manner, either due to his suspicions of them or his arrogance.”
Bill Hamilton, the original developer of the PROMIS software and head of Inslaw Inc., also found Ben-Menashe’s claims regarding the illicit use of PROMIS by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies to be credible, though he expressed doubts about Ben-Menashe’s character.
Hamilton told MintPress the following about Ben-Menashe:
Ari Ben Menashe was the first source to tell us reliable information about the role of Rafi Eitan and Israeli intelligence vis-a-vis PROMIS but, in the end, of course, he was a clandestine services-type guy whose official duties include the ability and willingness to lie, cheat, and steal.”
A threat revived
While Ben-Menashe may have been viewed as a “declining threat” after the early 1990s, his plans to meet with Robert Parry of Consortium News years later in 2012 to discuss Iran-Contra and other covert dealings of the 1980s appeared to change that. Right before he planned to travel from Canada to the United States to meet with Parry and “finally prove” the truthfulness of his past claims, a fire-bomb was thrown into his Montreal home, destroying it.
Though Canadian media referred to the incendiary device as a “molotov cocktail,” Consortium News reported that “the arson squad’s initial assessment is said to be that the flammable agent was beyond the sort of accelerant used by common criminals,” leading to speculation that the accelerant was military-grade.
Had it not been for the bomb, the origins of which Canadian police failed to determine, Ben-Menashe would have traveled to the U.S. alongside a “senior Israeli intelligence figure” to be interviewed by Parry. The other intelligence-linked individual, according to Parry, “concluded that the attack was meant as a message from Israeli authorities to stay silent about the historical events that he was expected to discuss.”
Though neither Ben-Menashe nor Parry directly blamed Israel’s government for the destruction of Ben-Menashe’s home, Parry noted that the bombing did succeed in “intimidating Ben-Menashe, shutting down possible new disclosures of Israeli misconduct from the other intelligence veteran, and destroying records that would have helped Ben-Menashe prove whatever statements he might make.”
While Ben-Menashe’s post-intelligence associations with controversial governments and individuals have given plenty of fodder to the still thriving media campaign to discredit his claims about covert U.S.-Israel operations in the 1980s, there remain troubling indications that the Israeli government sees his information on decades-old events as a threat.
Now, with the major efforts by powerful Americans and Israelis to distance themselves from Jeffrey Epstein and other figures associated with his depraved sex trafficking operation, Ben-Menashe may soon again find his reputation — and perhaps more — under fire.
A whistleblower complaint that has prompted a standoff between the U.S. intelligence community and Democrats in Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, a person familiar with the matter said.
It couldn’t be determined which foreign leader the complaint says Mr. Trump engaged in a conversation with.
The House Intelligence Committee has been gripped in an unusual legal battle with the acting director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, over the complaint. The intelligence community’s inspector general has deemed the complaint a matter of urgent concern, according to the Democratic chairman of the committee, Adam Schiff.
Mr. Trump disputed that he had said anything inappropriate in a call with a foreign leader.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!” he tweeted on Thursday. “Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially “heavily populated” call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”
The White House declined to comment on the whistleblower complaint on Thursday. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The substance of the complaint was previously reported by the Washington Post.
Mr. Schiff issued a subpoena last week to Mr. Maguire regarding the complaint while suggesting the issues divulged by the complainant were being withheld to protect Mr. Trump or other administration officials.
Mr. Maguire initially appeared to rebuff the subpoena but Mr. Schiff said late Wednesday he had agreed to testify in an open hearing next week.
The inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Michael Atkinson, a Trump appointee, met Thursday morning with the committee in a closed session.
Mr. Atkinson’s urgency in dealing with the whistleblower complaint, which his office received on Aug. 12, was undercut by a determination by the office’s general counsel that the complaint concerned conduct by someone outside the intelligence community, and as a result didn’t rise to the level of an “urgent concern” that by law would require the complaint be transmitted to Congress.
But Mr. Atkinson “determined that this complaint is both credible and urgent, and that it should be transmitted to Congress under the clear letter of the law,” Mr. Schiff said Wednesday. “The committee places the highest importance on the protection of whistleblowers and their complaints to Congress.”
Mr. Trump had a number of conversations with foreign leaders in the weeks leading up to the filing of the whistleblower complaint, including a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 31.
Mr. Trump also received letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the summer and has held meetings with the leaders of Pakistan, Qatar and the Netherlands.
Mr. Trump traveled to Japan in June for the Group of 20 summit, where he met with world leaders including Mr. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. During the trip he had an impromptu meeting with Mr. Kim at the border between North Korea and South Korea.
—Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.
Write to Dustin Volz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps Zhang’s pool excuse was a quick and casual line to pass through the first security perimeter without many questions. Did she actually have a better cover story, or maybe a verifiable true story, she was able to present under more intense questioning? Zhang reportedly underwent four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Secret Service. How did this go? What explanation did she give for her visit to Mar-a-Lago in this high-stakes setting? Did her explanation fit with answers she gave when applying for a visa to enter the country? Zhang reportedly previously traveled to the United States, in 2016 and 2017. Does her explanation for those trips match information she gave when applying for a visa, and how do those trips fit with her current itinerary and actions?
If Zhang isn’t a spy, or up to other nefarious things, why is it that she “lies to everyone,” as the prosecutor said in court? Could she simply be confused or did she communicate poorly because English is not her native language? Investigators, particularly those who questioned her, know better than we do about Zhang’s command of English. The Miami Heraldreported that she “appeared to speak English” to a lawyer in court and she took notes during the hearing, but a translator was also present.
How would Zhang have operated inside Mar-a-Lago?
The president’s vacation abode is a target-rich environment. There are the obvious marks: The president and his inner circle. But those people are hard to access. Better targets might be the multitudes of people at Mar-a-Lago who aren’t in the president’s inner circle but who have access to those who are and can influence and glean information from them.
A casual observer could also gather a load of information simply by being present at Mar-a-Lago.
- Who is there?
- Who is trying to get access and influence people? Who interacts with whom?
- What activities do they participate in?
- What schedule do they follow?
This could help a foreign intelligence service target people for recruitment as assets. It could also tell a foreign intelligence service what other countries are running operations there and which individuals they are targeting using what methods. This is important counterintelligence information for any spy agency, a window into other countries’ priorities and how close they are to achieving them.
It’s also possible Zhang wanted to observe the security situation at the resort, laying the groundwork for some future operation. She might have witnessed how Secret Service and resort security worked (or didn’t work) together and how freely Trump and his people move around, to determine what kind of access might be available.
But Zhang’s more than $8,000 worth of cash (in U.S. and Chinese currency) was found in her hotel room at the Colony Hotel about two miles from Mar-a-Lago, not on her person. Unless she planned to enter the resort a second time, it seems very unlikely she was there to pay an asset for information.
Some tourists do indeed travel with loads of cash. Although Zhang has a Wells Fargo account in the United States that she could have accessed. And that account raises new questions. When and why did she set up this account and how has she used it in the past? Is her use of this bank account consistent with the investor and consulting business she claims to run? Or did she set it up years ago in an attempt to build her cover story while laying the groundwork for an intelligence operation? Investigators will try to find answers to those questions.
But an intelligence officer might also have multiple phones and SIM cards. Good spies follow the “one phone, one operation” rule. That is, they don’t call different assets using the same phone, because then they become linked, and key in any intelligence operation is to keep information compartmented. Much like you don’t want to send private texts on your work phone, you don’t want communications with multiple assets on a single device.
There is also the question of what kinds of phones these are. Are they burner phones, which are pay-as-you-go and not registered to an individual and therefore not easily traceable back to the purchaser and user? A spy would most likely use a burner phone. Or, maybe she was delivering burner phones to assets inside the resort to make communication easier? Or are these regular phones, registered in Zhang’s name or her company’s name? Investigators will certainly run traces on the phones and SIM cards to see if they link to anyone of interest or if they suggest a strange pattern of behavior, such as communicating with someone in a way that is meant to hide the contact.
Thumb drives are pretty normal in business, but malware isn’t. The fact that the first thumb drive Secret Service looked at had malware on it does not look good for Zhang.
It’s possible that a spy would want to use malware to destroy a network at the resort. But a foreign intelligence service would more likely be interested in using it to gather useful information. There is very little chance (if any) that Zhang could have gotten the malware anywhere near a government computer. But to slip a program into the resort’s network that would allow an intelligence service to see guest lists, schedules and itineraries, room assignments, and who is coming and going? Yes, that would be of interest.