On Monday morning, it was announced in Honolulu, Hawaii, that a naturalized US citizen, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, originally born in Hong Kong, has been charged with espionage on behalf of the People’s Republic of China. If only the story were straightforward and simple — it is not. And I suspect there are many twists and turns ahead if this case moves forward in a courtroom. The following explains why.
In 1982, Ma was hired by the CIA as a Case Officer and was assigned overseas in Asia. In that position, he held “Top Secret” and “Sensitive Compartmentalized Information” security clearances. That meant he had access to pretty much all CIA covert operative identities, identities of clandestine sources, details of sensitive intelligence collection operations and methods, and details of ongoing intelligence operations and the targets thereof. Ma had training in every aspect of CIA intelligence-gathering techniques, and techniques to detect and defeat counter-intelligence efforts of foreign adversaries targeted against him and any sources connected to him. Pretty much everything the CIA does inside China, Ma had information about.
Ma quit the CIA in 1989 without explanation and took up residence in Shanghai, China. At some point thereafter, Ma was approached by Chinese Intelligence about working for them back in the United States, and Ma agreed. In 2000, Ma sought entry into the United States in Honolulu, declaring that he had been living in China for more than five years. He stated he was in the “import-export” business and had $9,000 in US Currency with him.
In March 2001, Ma was recorded on videotape in a Hong Kong hotel room accepting $50,000 from Chinese Intelligence officers.
Five days ago, on August 12, 2020, Ma was again recorded accepting cash as a token of appreciation from the PRC for all he has done through the years. He expressed a willingness to continue providing information, and that he wanted “the Motherland” to succeed. At that time, he was under surveillance by the FBI, and the person he was meeting with was an undercover FBI agent.
They didn’t have too much difficulty finding him and luring him to a meeting — he worked for the FBI from 2004 to 2010 after returning to Hawaii.
Over the five day period between March 21, 2001, and March 26, 2001, in the same Hong Kong hotel room, where he received the $50,000, Ma and a relative — and another former CIA Officer born in China — were interviewed by no fewer than five different officers of the Chinese Intelligence Service about every aspect of their understanding of CIA activities and operatives in the PRC during the years each had worked for the CIA. You can use your imagination about how those interviews came to be video-recorded.
Agents who have viewed the videos describe Ma and his relative as having given the PRC information about their CIA activities; other CIA covert activities and clandestine sources; cryptographic information; other CIA operational tradecraft; etc.
After returning to Hawaii and “laying low” for over a year, in December 2002, Ma applied to the FBI to be a Special Agent but was told that he was too old. Immediately thereafter he applied online for an open position with the FBI as a linguist — an internal translator of documents or recorded conversations. In April 2003 he completed the paper application for the position, and a few days thereafter used a prepaid calling card to contact his Chinese Intelligence handlers and advise them of the status of his efforts to be hired by the FBI.
On May 24, 2003, Ma was hired pending completion of his background investigation. The background investigation was satisfactorily completed in August 2003, and on August 11, 2004, he reported for his first day of work at the FBI Offices in the US Federal Building in Honolulu.
I know what you are thinking — “But what about the video of him in the Hong Kong hotel room meeting with the Chinese and telling them everything about the CIA”?? No explanation is provided for how he managed to pass the background check for a position with the FBI requiring “Top Secret” clearances with that video having been obtained.
The criminal complaint filed against him documents nearly 30 instances between 2005 and 2010 when Ma copied, photographed, and/or downloaded classified information and then removed it from the FBI offices. It also details numerous trips made to China by either Ma or his wife during that time span, as well as telephone and email contacts between Ma and his Chinese intelligence agency contacts. Ma’s employment with the FBI ended in 2010, but the circumstances are not explained in the criminal complaint filed against him in Honolulu.
Beginning in January 2019, the FBI began an undercover operation targeting Ma. The undercover agent met with Ma, posing as a Chinese intelligence agent in Hawaii, and showed Ma the video of his March 2001 meeting in the Hong Kong hotel room to convince Ma he worked for Chinese Intelligence. The undercover agent explained that Chinese intelligence was reviewing the manner in which he had been treated during the years he was providing classified information, whether he had been fairly compensated for what he provided, and if there was a basis for doing work together again. There were numerous meetings after that, with Ma providing a significant amount of detailed information to the undercover agent about the instructions he had been given and what he had done.
During these meetings, Ma expressed an interest in continuing to obtain and provide classified information for Chinese intelligence and accepted payments from the undercover agent for the time he was spending in meeting with the agent and providing information. The final meeting was on August 12, and Ma was paid $2,000 as a token of appreciation from Chinese Intelligence for his willingness to continue working together in the future. During that meeting, Ma was recorded saying that he wanted “the Motherland” to succeed.
The charges against Ma could result in life in prison.
What intrigues me about the complaint is that I have strong suspicions the level of detail provided is not consistent with espionage activities that were only uncovered after the fact, and pieced together in a historical analysis. The fact that someone has had a video for nearly two decades of that March 2001 five day session in a Hong Kong hotel room strongly suggests that Ma was not a complete “unknown” on his first day reporting to work in Honolulu.
There might be much more to this story if it does actually play out in a Hawaii federal courtroom.