A veteran CIA officer and former FBI linguist was charged Monday with selling U.S. defense secrets and the identities of CIA officers to China in exchange for cash and expensive gifts, including a new set of golf clubs.
Federal authorities say Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, of Honolulu, had become a “compromised asset” of the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) as early as 2001.
The FBI criminal complaint unsealed Monday indicates the case could potentially be very damaging based on the description of secret documents and other data sent to China.
“During these meetings Ma and [a co-conspirator] disclosed a substantial amount of highly classified national defense information of the United States to the MSS officers,” the complaint says. Among the information that Mr. Ma and his co-conspirator had access to were the identities of recruited CIA agents as well as secrets that reveal CIA operating methods.
Mr. Ma, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, began working for the CIA in 1982 where he maintained a top secret clearance. For part of his time in the CIA, he worked overseas in the East-Asia and Pacific region.
The case is the latest spy case involving current or former U.S. intelligence officials accused of spying for China.
In November, former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was sentenced to 19 years in prison for passing classified information to China.
The MSS branch involved was described as the Shanghai State Security Bureau. Several other recent prosecutions of suspected or convicted Chinese spies have involved the Shanghai State Security Bureau, an indication that U.S. intelligence either penetrated the bureau electronically or have communicated with a defector.
It is not clear why it took the FBI so long to arrest Mr. Ma and prosecute the case that appears to have been known since at least 2010.
In 2001, after Mr. Ma had left the CIA, he met with at least five officers from the Chinese Ministry of State Security in a Hong Kong hotel room, where he “disclosed a substantial amount of highly classified national defense information,” prosecutors said.
After leaving the CIA, Mr. Ma in 2004 landed a job as a Chinese linguist at the FBI’s Honolulu field office. He used his job and security clearance to copy or photograph classified documents about guided missiles, weapons systems and other U.S. secrets and passed the materials to his Chinese handlers, prosecutors said.
Over a six-year period, Mr. Ma is alleged to have copied or stolen documents marked “secret,” even taking some of the materials on trips to China. He returned from the trips with thousands of dollars in cash and gifts, including new golf clubs.
The FBI became suspicious of his activities, arranging two meetings last year between Mr. Ma and an undercover informant, according to records.
The undercover informant claimed to be a representative of the Chinese government investigating how Mr. Ma had been treated, including his compensation, court records showed.
An 85-year-old relative of Mr. Ma also worked for the CIA and is also accused of spying for China, but he was not charged because he 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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “This betrayal is never worth it.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and noted China critic, praised the FBI for cracking the case Monday.
“Alexander Yuk Ching Ma betrayed this country and has blood on his hands,” Mr. Sasse said. “Ma sold the identities of CIA officers and assets to the Chinese Communist Party and deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law — both as payment for his crimes and as a warning to other spies working on behalf of Beijing.”
If convicted of the charges, Mr. Ma could face the death penalty or a sentence of life in prison.