The Justice Department said the espionage spanned a decade.
A 67-year-old former CIA officer and FBI linguist was arrested Friday after allegedly selling U.S. government secrets to China for thousands of dollars spanning multiple years, court documents unsealed Monday reveal.
Alexander Yuk Ching Ma was formally charged with conspiracy to communicate national defense information to assist a foreign government, the Justice Department said in a press release. If convicted, he’ll face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
“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,” Alan Kohler Jr., assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division said in a statement, echoing recently increasing sentiments of government and Trump administration officials accusing China of national and trade secret theft.
A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, Ma worked for the CIA from 1982 to 1989 as an officer trained “in methods of covert communication, surveillance detection, and operational security” to conduct authorized intelligence activities in the U.S., according to an affidavit filed in the case. He held a top secret clearance at the time.
After that, Ma worked for a stint in Shanghai, China, and prosecutors say he began a decade-long scheme in 2001 to share classified national defense and security details with Chinese intelligence officials. Ma allegedly initially provided information regarding the CIA’s personnel, operations, and methods of concealing communications during meetings in Hong Kong in March of that year, one of which Justice officials confirmed was caught on a videotape that showed him receiving and counting $50,000 cash for the exchange.
The FBI’s Honolulu Field Office brought Ma on as a contract linguist to translate Chinese language documents in 2004 and prosecutors allege that for the following six years he “regularly copied, photographed and stole documents” marked “secret.” They also said Ma used his assigned FBI device to burn a CD-ROM of documents related to guided missile and weapons system technology research. Additionally, officials claimed Ma would bring some of the stolen assets on trips to China to hand over the information, and would return with thousands in cash and other pricey gifts.
During the spring of 2019, Ma began engaging with an undercover FBI employee who he believed was a member of China’s intelligence service. Confirming a range of his previous information exchanging activities with the Chinese, Ma accepted $2,000 from the FBI official “to acknowledge his work on behalf of China”—and offered to provide more service. In a subsequent meeting with an undercover member of the FBI on August 12, Ma took receipt of more cash currency for his prior work and said explicitly that “he wanted ‘the motherland’ to succeed,” the court document states.
Prosecutors also noted that Ma didn’t work alone—he also conspired with a now 85-year-old relative who is also a former CIA officer. The FBI did not seek an arrest warrant for that individual at this time, the affidavit notes, because Ma’s relative presently “suffers from an advanced and debilitating cognitive disease.”
“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 Demers said in a statement. “This betrayal is never worth it.”