A former CIA officer has been charged with providing secrets to China over the course of a decade in a case that a top Justice Department official describes as coming straight from a “spy novel.”
Alexander Yuk Chung Ma, who was also an FBI linguist and a 67-year-old resident of Hawaii, was arrested Friday in Hawaii and charged with conspiring to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government, the Justice Department said. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
An FBI affidavit alleges an 85-year-old Los Angeles man, a relative of Ma’s and also a former CIA officer, acted as a conspirator but was not charged because he suffers from a “debilitating cognitive disease.”
“This case demonstrates the persistence of Chinese espionage efforts,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s national security division. “It shows the willingness to betray one’s adopted country and colleagues. … And it reads like a spy novel.”
Ma, who was being held pending a hearing in federal court, could not be reached for comment.
The arrest is the latest in a series of criminal cases brought by the Justice Department against current and former U.S. government officials accused of supplying secrets to the Chinese government. At least four U.S. government officials have been sentenced to prison in the last two years for providing sensitive information to the Chinese government.
Court papers describe a years-long effort by Ma to provide secrets to China’s government. Born in Hong Kong in 1952, the affidavit says, Ma came to the U.S. in 1968 and eventually became a naturalized citizen. He joined the CIA in 1982 and became a case officer stationed overseas. He left the agency in 1989.
Ma’s spying started in 2001, the FBI affidavit says, when he and his Los Angeles-based relative met in a Hong Kong hotel room with Chinese operatives and handed over “a substantial amount of highly classified national defense information,” including details about CIA operations and sources.
The FBI affidavit said the bureau possessed a videotape of the meeting. The video captured Ma counting $50,000 in payment from the Chinese operatives while his relative continued to provide classified information, the affidavit said. The FBI did not disclose how it obtained the video.
Ma kept in touch with his Chinese handlers and applied to be an FBI agent in the hopes of handing over more information, the affidavit alleges. But he was told he was too old to be an agent, so Ma changed plans and applied to become a contract linguist for the bureau in Hawaii. A day before starting the FBI job in 2004, he called a suspected accomplice and said he would be working for “the other side,” the affidavit alleges.
Over the next six years, he downloaded, swiped and photographed sensitive information, the affidavit alleges. The handlers also sent him a photograph of five sources it wanted to identify. Ma forwarded the photo to his relative, who identified two of the sources, the FBI alleged.
Ma left the FBI in 2010. It is not clear why the FBI waited until January 2019 to conduct its sting operation. But the affidavit suggested the FBI had been tracking Ma’s activities for years, likely while he was still at the bureau.
In January of last year, an undercover FBI agent met with Ma. The agent was posing as a Chinese operative conducting an audit of how his government treated the former CIA officer and how he had been compensated. To prove his bonafides, the affidavit said, the agent played a videotape of the 2001 Hong Kong meeting. Ma bought the ruse, the affidavit said, and confirmed he had handed over classified information to the Chinese operatives in 2001 and had continued to work for them.
They met again two months later, with the undercover agent giving Ma $2,000 “to acknowledge his work on behalf of China.” Ma confirmed “he had provided multiple items of valuable U.S. government information” to Chinese operatives when he worked for the bureau, the affidavit says.
At a meeting Aug. 12, the affidavit alleges, the undercover agent gave Ma another $2,000. Ma counted the cash before putting it in his pants pocket. He told the undercover agent that he “wanted ‘the motherland’ to succeed,” the affidavit said, and would be willing to continue to work for the Chinese government, “perhaps as a consultant.”