Retired CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, was arrested Friday and charged with selling U.S. intelligence secrets to Chinese agents.
The evidence against Ma includes a video that depicts him counting the $50,000 in cash he was paid for classified information he divulged.
Ma is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Hong Kong and currently lives in Hawaii. He worked for the CIA from 1982 to 1989, lived in Shanghai for a decade after leaving the agency, and moved to Hawaii in 2001.
Ma sought a job with the FBI after he moved to Hawaii and was hired by the Bureau as a contract linguist in 2004. His indictment indicated he kept in touch with Chinese intelligence agents throughout the hiring process. On the day before he reported for work with the FBI in Hawaii, he called an unidentified accomplice and boasted that he would really be working for “the other side.”
According to court documents filed by the Justice Department (DOJ), Ma conspired with one of his relatives over the course of six years to copy and steal classified documents from the FBI he was tasked with translating from Chinese.
Ma allegedly made “frequent trips to China” to deliver the stolen intelligence, returning with “thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, such as a new set of golf clubs.” One of his duties was said to be helping the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) identify U.S. intelligence assets. On one occasion documented by DOJ, the MSS sent Ma an email with a photo of five puppies to signal that they wanted him to help identify five suspected U.S. intelligence sources. Some of the documents he passed along to China pertained to “guided missile and weapons system technology research.”
DOJ did not identify the relative Ma conspired with, saying only that “co-conspirator #1” is 85 years old, based in Los Angeles, also worked for the CIA, and currently suffers from an “advanced and debilitating cognitive disease,” so they will not be arrested or indicted.
This individual resigned from the CIA in 1983 under allegations of “inappropriately” using their position to “assist PRC nationals in obtaining entry into the United States,” and was convicted in the late 1990s of making “false statements to a lending institution.”
According to the charging documents, the co-conspirator traveled with Ma to Hong Kong in 2001 to meet with multiple intelligence agents from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and sell them a trove of intelligence about “the CIA’s personnel, operations, and methods of concealing communications.” This meeting was the source of the incriminating videotape that showed Ma counting his money.
The charging document also indicated that Ma’s wife flew to Shanghai in May 2006 to deliver a laptop computer to MSS agents. The MSS sent him an email thanking him for sending his wife to deliver “the present.” Ma’s wife was not named in the affidavit or charged.
The FBI said it caught Ma with a sting operation that began in 2019, during which an undercover operative posing as a PRC intelligence officer gave him $2,000 as a “small token” of Communist China’s appreciation and secured his promise to perform more espionage work in the future. Ma stated he was willing to spy on the U.S. in order to help “the motherland” succeed.
“The trail of Chinese espionage is long and, sadly, strewn with former American intelligence officers who betrayed their colleagues, their country and its liberal democratic values to support an authoritarian communist regime,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said when the indictment was unsealed Monday.
“This betrayal is never worth it. Whether immediately, or many years after they thought they got away with it, we will find these traitors and we will bring them to justice. To the Chinese intelligence services, these individuals are expendable. To us, they are sad but urgent reminders of the need to stay vigilant,” Demers said.
“This serious act of espionage is another example in a long string of illicit activities that the People’s Republic of China is conducting within and against the United States,” said FBI Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Alan E. Kohler Jr.
“In the past three years, the Justice Department has brought at least three other counterintelligence cases against former US intelligence officials accused of selling secrets to the Chinese, marking some of the more brazen examples of what officials describe as a broad Chinese espionage campaign,” CNN noted Tuesday when reporting Ma’s arrest.