(WASHINGTON) — A former CIA officer and contract linguist for the FBI has been charged with spying for China, including by disclosing tradecraft and information on sources to Chinese intelligence officers who had co-opted him, according to documents unsealed Monday.
Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, was arrested last week after an undercover operation in which prosecutors say he accepted thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for his past espionage activities. He told a law enforcement officer who was posing as a Chinese intelligence officer that he wanted to see the “motherland” succeed and that he was eager to resume helping China after the coronavirus pandemic subsided, prosecutors said.
“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 John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement.
An FBI affidavit accuses Ma, who worked for the CIA from 1982 to 1989, of revealing government secrets to at least five Chinese intelligence officers in a Hong Kong hotel room over a three-day period in March 2001. Those secrets included information about CIA sources and assets, international operations, secure communication practices practices and operational tradecraft.
Prosecutors say Ma’s meeting with the Chinese officers included a relative and fellow CIA employee who was not named in court documents and who is not being charged because, officials say, the now 85-year-old suffers from advanced and debilitating cognitive diseases.
A video recording of the hotel meeting shows the men receiving payments of $50,000 for the information they provided, the authorities said.
By that point, the FBI says, Ma had become a compromised asset of China’s Ministry of State Security, which collects intelligence information of value and interest to the Chinese government — a relationship that endured for years and carried over into Ma’s next job.
Ma remained in touch with the Chinese intelligence officers after he joined the FBI as a contract linguist in 2004, at which point he used his work computer to copy images of documents related to missiles and weapon system technology research.
Over the next several years, prosecutors say, he repeatedly brought a digital camera into a secure FBI work area and photographed translation documents, and also stole secret records that he took with him to Asia, it was alleged.
Some of Ma’s travel drew attention, prosecutors said. In 2006, he returned home from Honolulu after a trip to Shanghai and was found to be carrying $20,000 and a set of golf clubs that he did not previously own.
The Justice Department alleges that Ma and his co-conspirator also helped Chinese intelligence officers identify suspected human sources. At one point, according to an FBI affidavit, Ma received an email message from a Chinese intelligence contact that included as an attachment a photograph of five puppies sitting on a park bench. The FBI believes the photo was meant to prompt Ma to arrange for his relative and former CIA colleague to provide information on five people who were suspected of being informants.
The FBI undercover investigation took shape in January 2019 when an official posing as a Chinese intelligence officer met with Ma in his Honolulu office and showed him a video recording of the 2001 meeting in Hong Kong and asked for help identifying people who were present.
Ma, apparently convinced that the undercover officer was an actual intelligence officer, provided the help and met again with the officer two months later, when he accepted $2,000 for his work on China’s behalf, according to court papers.
He offered to do more work for China, prosecutors said, and met again last week with the undercover officer, accepting a red envelope with $2,000 and saying that he wanted “the motherland” to succeed.
A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, Ma was charged in federal court in Honolulu with conspiring to gather and communicate national defense information for a foreign nation. He faces up to life in prison if convicted, and is due to make his first court appearance Tuesday.
A phone message left for a lawyer listed as Ma’s federal defender was not immediately returned Monday.
Another former CIA officer, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was sentenced to 19 years in prison last November for an espionage conspiracy in which prosecutors say he received more than $840,000 from China to divulge the names of human sources and his knowledge of spycraft.