Ex-CIA officer is accused of spying for China

Julian E. Barnes, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 18 2020 09:39 PM

WASHINGTON — A former CIA officer was charged with giving classified information to the Chinese government, the Justice Department announced Monday, the latest in a string of former intelligence officers accused of spying for Beijing.

The suspect, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, worked as a CIA officer in the 1980s and then as a contract translator for the FBI in the 2000s. He was arrested Friday.

According to a criminal complaint, Ma, 67, and an unnamed older relative, now 87 and suffering from debilitating cognitive disease, first provided information to Chinese intelligence officials in March 2001 about CIA personnel, foreign informants, classified operations, cryptography and other methods of concealing communications, secrets for which they were paid $50,000.

The accusations against Ma are the most recent in a series against former intelligence officers. In May 2019, Kevin Patrick Mallory, a former CIA officer, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying for China. In November, Jerry Chun Shing Lee was sentenced to 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to give classified information to China.

“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,” John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.

From 2010 to 2012, Chinese officials rounded up many American informants in China, killing many of them and destroying the CIA’s network of sources in the country. The role of some former American CIA officers in revealing the identity of the informants has been debated, though U.S. officials have not publicly accused anyone of providing information that destroyed the network.

Ma and his relative identified for their handlers at least two people that Chinese intelligence officials believed were American informants. Ma provided that information to China in 2006, well before the collapse of the larger network.

According to court documents, Ma, working in 2006 as a translator on contract for the FBI, gave his older relative photographs of people whom Chinese intelligence believed were American spies. The relative identified for Ma two of the five people whom Chinese intelligence officers had asked about. Ma’s wife then traveled to Shanghai to deliver a laptop to Chinese intelligence, according to the Justice Department.

The court documents also accused Ma of repeatedly copying classified documents that he was asked to translate for the FBI, sometimes with a digital camera and other times with a photocopier. From 2006 to 2010, Ma took those documents from the FBI offices in Hawaii where he worked, according to law enforcement officials.

It was not clear how much the Chinese government paid Ma in total. But in addition to an initial $50,000 payment, Ma returned from one trip to China with $20,000 and a new set of golf clubs.

Born in Hong Kong in 1952, Ma moved in 1968 to Honolulu, where he became a naturalized American citizen, attended school and graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He joined the CIA in 1982 and was assigned the following year to serve as an officer overseas. He left the agency in 1989.

Ma appears to have lived in China for about five years, perhaps working as an importer and exporter in the 1990s, before returning to the United States in 2000.

The court documents said the government was not seeking the arrest of Ma’s relative because of his cognitive disease. The relative worked for the CIA from 1967 to 1983, resigning after he was accused of using his job to help Chinese nationals enter the United States.

Last year, an undercover FBI agent contacted Ma, posing as a member of Chinese intelligence who was investigating how Ma had been treated and how he was compensated.

The FBI had obtained a secretly recorded videotape of Ma and his relative’s initial 2001 meeting with Chinese intelligence officers.

The undercover agent showed the tape of that meeting as part of a ruse to trick Ma into believing the agent’s cover as a Chinese intelligence officer. Ma told the undercover agent that he had continued to work for Chinese intelligence and identified some of the Chinese officers in the 2001 meeting.

In a second meeting, the undercover agents offered Ma $2,000 for his work spying for the Chinese, which he accepted.

In a final meeting this month, Ma told the undercover agent “that he wanted ‘the motherland’ to succeed,” according to court documents. But he also said that he had already provided all the information he had. He told the undercover agent that he was willing to work as a consultant to the Chinese government “but that he would prefer to discuss opportunities after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.”