A former CIA officer has been arrested and charged with selling secrets to China over several years, the justice department announced.
According to the charges, the former US spy – identified as Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, aged 67 – conspired with an unnamed relative, also an ex-CIA officer, to sell secrets in return for tens of thousands of dollars and gifts.
Ma was arrested on Friday, following a sting operation conducted by the FBI. The relative was identified only as co-conspirator 1, an 85-year-old naturalised citizen living in Los Angeles, who worked as a CIA officer from 1971 to 1982 with the highest clearance level, with access to the identity of covert CIA officers.
According to court documents, the co-conspirator is suffering from a severe cognitive disease so the FBI was not seeking an arrest warrant “at this time”.
The charge sheet said that the conspiracy began in March 2001 with three days of meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room with at least five Chinese intelligence officials in March 2001, during which the two former CIA officers provided information to the Chinese foreign intelligence service about the CIA’s operations, including “the cover used by CIA officers” and their identities.
“Part of the meeting was captured on videotape, including a portion where Ma can be seen receiving and counting $50,000 in cash for the secrets they provided,” the justice department statement said. Court documents do not make clear who made the video recording of the 2001 meeting.
Ma was born in Hong Kong and moved to Hawaii in 1968, going to school and university there. He began working for the CIA in 1982, working with top secret clearance. He retired from the agency in 1989 and went to live and work in Shanghai until 2001, when he allegedly met Chinese intelligence agencies before moving to Hawaii.
Once in Hawaii according to court documents, Ma applied for a job as a contract linguist at the FBI office there, reviewing and translating documents. In April 2003 he is alleged to have used a prepaid calling card to contact his Chinese handlers to update them on his FBI employment.
“Over the following six years, Ma regularly copied, photographed and stole documents that displayed US classification markings such as ‘SECRET’,” the justice department alleges. The charge sheet claims he burned pictures of US missiles and other weapons technology on to a CD-rom. “Ma took some of the stolen documents and images with him on his frequent trips to China with the intent to provide them to his handlers. Ma often returned from China with thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, such as a new set of golf clubs.”
It said that in spring 2019 an FBI undercover employee posing as a Chinese intelligence officer, approached Ma on the pretext of assessing how he had been treated by his past handlers and how much he had been paid. The undercover agent gave him $2,000 as a “small token” of appreciation for Ma’s past assistance to China.
The statement claims Ma offered to resume work for Chinese intelligence.
At a follow-up meeting last week, Ma is accused of accepting more money from the undercover FBI agent and “expressed his willingness to continue to help the Chinese government, and stated that he wanted ‘the motherland’ to succeed”. But Ma said he would prefer to resume his spying work only after the Covid pandemic had subsided.
“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,” said the assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers.
“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.”
Ma is due to appear in court in Honolulu on Tuesday, and will be charged with conspiracy to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government. He faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.