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Former CIA Officer Accused of Espionage

August 17, 2020, 12:00 PM HST
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A former CIA officer is facing a charge of conspiracy after allegedly providing Top Secret level intelligence to officials of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

A criminal complaint against Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, was released today in the US District Court. He is accused of conspiracy to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government. If convicted, he faces a penalty of life imprisonment or death.

“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 Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “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. To the Chinese intelligence services, these individuals are expendable. To us, they are sad but urgent reminders of the need to stay vigilant.”

Ma is a naturalized US citizen born in Shanghai, China. According to court documents, Ma began working for the CIA in 1982, maintained a Top Secret clearance, and signed numerous non-disclosure agreements in which he acknowledged his responsibility and ongoing duty to protect US government secrets during his tenure at CIA. Ma left the CIA in 1989 and lived and worked in Shanghai, China before arriving in Hawai‘i in 2001.

According to court documents, Ma and the other former CIA officer (identified as co-conspirator #1) conspired with each other and multiple PRC intelligence officials to communicate classified national defense information over the course of a decade.

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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. 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.

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The court documents further allege that after Ma moved to Hawai‘i, he sought employment with the FBI in order to once again gain access to classified US government information which he could, in turn, provide to his PRC handlers. 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.” 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.

According to court documents, 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. Ma also offered to once again work for the PRC intelligence service. On Aug. 12, 2020, during a meeting with an FBI undercover employee before arrest, Ma again accepted money for his past espionage activities, expressed his willingness to continue to help the Chinese government, and stated that he wanted “the motherland” to succeed.

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Ma was taken into custody on Aug. 14. He will make his initial appearance before a federal judge later today or tomorrow in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawai‘i.

“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,” said Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division Alan E. Kohler Jr. “This case demonstrates that no matter the length or difficulty of the investigation, the men and women of the FBI will work tirelessly to protect our national security from the threat posed by Chinese intelligence services. Let it be known that anyone who violates a position of trust to betray the United States will face justice, no matter how many years it takes to bring their crimes to light.”

The investigation was conducted by the FBI’s Honolulu and Los Angeles Field Offices. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Sorenson and Trial Attorneys Scott Claffee and Steve Marzen of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting the case.

“These cases are very complicated and take years if not decades to bring to a conclusion,” said Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Field Office Eli S. Miranda. “I could not be more proud of the work done by the men and women of the FBI’s Honolulu Division in pursuing this case. Their dedication is a reminder that the FBI will never waiver when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of our nation.”

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