Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 17 August 2020



Former CIA officer charged with spying for China

Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a former CIA officer, was arrested in a sting operation last week, authorities said © AP

A former CIA officer has been arrested in a sting operation on charges that he spied for China over the course of more than a decade, US officials said on Monday.

The arrest of Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, on Friday, marked the latest case involving US intelligence officers charged with spying for Beijing and came only a month after the Trump administration closed down China’s consulate in Houston, claiming it was a spy hub.

Mr Ma was charged with conspiring with another former CIA officer — who is a relative — to commit espionage, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Monday. If convicted, he faces a sentence of life in prison.

Mr Ma was to make his initial court appearance before a federal judge in Hawaii on Tuesday. The relative, now 85, was not arrested due to advanced cognitive disease, the FBI 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,” said John Demers, assistant attorney-general for national security.

Mr Ma, a naturalised US citizen who was born in Hong Kong, spent seven years working for the CIA until he resigned in 1989, moving first to Shanghai and then to Hawaii in 2001. In Honolulu, Mr Ma started working as a contract linguist for the FBI after he was turned down as a special agent because he was too old. 

The FBI alleged Mr Ma disclosed information to Chinese spies in a series of meetings at a Hong Kong hotel in 2001 — some of which was captured on videotape — and continued to pass on classified information about CIA personnel and foreign assets, operations and tradecraft to Chinese intelligence operatives once he moved to Hawaii. 

He regularly photographed FBI documents and on one occasion burnt guided missile and weapons system technology research on to a CD-Rom, according to the complaint. In March 2010, he boarded a flight to Seoul carrying stolen documents marked secret, the complaint said.

Mr Ma often returned from China with thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, such as a new set of golf clubs, the documents said. He was seen receiving and counting $50,000 in cash from his Chinese handlers during one videotaped meeting, according to the Department of Justice. 

Last year, FBI investigators set a trap: they posed as Chinese intelligence officers in a meeting with Mr Ma and showed him the videotape to convince him they were authentic. Their most recent meeting took place last week, when Mr Ma said he wanted the “motherland” to succeed. 

Mr Ma’s relative, who was not named in court documents, allegedly worked for the CIA for 11 years until 1982 and now lives in Los Angeles. The former officer, who was assigned overseas for the CIA in the East Asia and Pacific region, had a higher level of security clearance than Mr Ma, giving the former officer access to the real names of covert officers and cryptographic training.

Last year, another former CIA case agent based in Hawaii was sentenced to 19 years in prison for espionage, with prosecutors saying he received more than $840,000 from China over a three-year period until 2013 in exchange for revealing spycraft and sources. 

Prosecutors said Hong-Kong-born Jerry Chun Shing Lee handed over information from a notebook and thumb drive, including the names of eight CIA clandestine sources who he had recruited. Mr Lee’s actions are believed to have helped decimate a network of spies working for the US in China.

“The charges announced today are a sobering reminder to our communities in Hawaii of the constant threat posed by those who seek to jeopardise our nation’s security through acts of espionage,” said Kenji Price, US attorney for Hawaii.

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