A former CIA officer who moved to Hawaii in 2001 was arrested Friday on a charge that he conspired with a relative — who also was a former CIA officer — to communicate classified information up to the top secret level to intelligence officials of the People’s Republic of China, the Justice Department said today.
Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, will make his initial appearance before a federal judge Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
On Aug. 12, during a meeting with an FBI undercover employee before his arrest, Ma accepted money for his espionage activities, “expressed his willingness to continue to help the Chinese government, and stated that he wanted ‘the motherland’ to succeed,” according to a Justice Department release.
He is charged with conspiracy to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government and faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted, officials said.
Ma and his relative (identified as co-conspirator No. 1) “conspired with each other and multiple PRC intelligence officials to communicate classified national defense information over the course of a decade,” the Justice Department said in a release.
The scheme began with three days of meetings in Hong Kong in March 2001 during which the two former CIA officers provided information to the foreign intelligence service about the CIA’s personnel, operations, and methods of concealing communications, officials said.
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 release said.
After Ma moved to Hawaii, he sought a job with the FBI “in order to once again gain access to classified U.S. government information which he could in turn provide to his PRC handlers,” according to the Justice Department.
In 2004, the FBI’s Honolulu field office hired Ma as a contract linguist tasked with reviewing and translating Chinese language documents.
“Over the following six years, Ma regularly copied, photographed and stole documents that displayed U.S. classification markings such as “SECRET,” the release said. “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.”
Ma began working for the CIA in 1982, maintaining a top secret clearance. He left the agency in 1989 and lived and worked in Shanghai, China, before coming to Hawaii.
“The charges announced today are a sobering reminder to our communities in Hawaii of the constant threat posed by those who seek to jeopardize our nation’s security through acts of espionage,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii Kenji M. Price. “Of particular concern are the criminal acts of those who served in our nation’s intelligence community, but then choose to betray their former colleagues and the nation-at-large by divulging classified national defense information to China.”
Alan E. Kohler Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said the “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.”
“This case demonstrates the persistence of Chinese espionage efforts,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s national security division. “It shows the willingness to betray one’s adopted country and colleagues … And it reads like a spy novel.”
Ma, who was being held pending a hearing in federal court, could not be reached for comment.
Eli Miranda, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Division, noted that, “These cases are very complicated and take years if not decades to bring to a conclusion.”
According to the Justice Department, in spring 2019, over the course of two in-person meetings, Ma confirmed his espionage activities to an FBI undercover employee Ma believed was a representative of the PRC intelligence service, and accepted $2,000 in cash from the FBI undercover as “small token” of appreciation for Ma’s assistance to China.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.