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Ex-CIA officer accused of sharing American secrets with Chinese intelligence

The CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
The CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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U.S. authorities have arrested and charged a former CIA officer who also did contract work for the FBI with giving classified U.S. data to Chinese intelligence officials, including the identity of CIA officers, the covers they used, and information about their sources and operations, according to court documents unsealed Monday.

Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for the CIA in the 1980s, was charged in federal court in Hawaii with conspiring to give up U.S. national defense information for nearly a decade.

In 2001, he was captured on video in a Hong Kong hotel room counting $50,000 in cash as he and a co-conspirator revealed sensitive CIA information to Chinese intelligence officials over three days of intense debriefing, according to an FBI affidavit.

Later, after Ma got a position as a contract Chinese linguist for the FBI, he regularly gathered documents marked classified to give to his handlers during trips to China, the affidavit alleged. Among the materials he collected was information on guided missile and weapons systems research, the affidavit alleged. He also worked with his co-conspirator to identify people that Chinese intelligence suspected of being U.S. sources, the affidavit alleged.

“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, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement announcing the case. “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.”

In recent years, the Justice Department has charged several Americans with spying for China, including former U.S. intelligence officers.

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The CIA declined to comment. Relatives of Ma could not immediately be reached, and no lawyer was listed for him in court records. He is expected to make his first court appearance Tuesday in Hawaii, the Justice Department said.

According to the affidavit, Ma, who was born in Hong Kong and came to Honolulu in the late 1960s for college, worked for the CIA from 1982 to 1989, including a stint as an officer overseas. His co-conspirator worked for the CIA from 1967 to 1983, when he resigned after he was found to have been using his position to help Chinese nationals get into the United States, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit does not identify the alleged co-conspirator, who is now 85, but says he is a relative of Ma. Prosecutors did not seek an arrest warrant for him because he has a “debilitating cognitive disease,” according to the affidavit.

In a news release, the Justice Department alleged that the men’s scheme began with the 2001 meeting in the Hong Kong hotel, and continued over the next decade. Ma, the Justice Department said, began working for the FBI in 2004, and would steal documents to take to China, often returning with thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts, including a set of golf clubs. He no longer works for the FBI, an FBI spokeswoman said.

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It is not clear when law enforcement became aware of the wrongdoing. In 2019, according to the affidavit, the FBI had an undercover employee posing as a representative of China’s Ministry of State Security contact Ma, claiming to be investigating on behalf of the Chinese government how he was treated and the amount of compensation he received.

The undercover employee showed Ma the video of the 2001 meeting, and Ma verified its authenticity and identified some of those present, according to the affidavit. This month, Ma met again with the undercover employee, took a $2,000 payment and said he wanted “the motherland” to succeed, according to the affidavit. He told the employee he had already passed to Chinese intelligence all of the information he had, the document says, but that he was willing to help as a consultant and would prefer to discuss opportunities once the pandemic had subsided.