Aug 17, 2020 - World

Former CIA officer arrested and charged with espionage for China

Illustration of an FBI agent looking through blinds on binoculars with the chinese flag overlaid on them

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma has been arrested and charged with allegedly sharing classified information with China, the Justice Department announced Monday.

Our thought bubble, via Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: No one should underestimate China’s intelligence services. In the past decade, the efforts of Chinese intelligence to identify as many individual CIA personnel as possible have paid off, resulting in the decommissioning of dozens of CIA assets in China.

Details: Ma, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for the CIA from 1982 to 1989 and maintained a "Top Secret" clearance, allegedly conspired with his relative and Chinese intelligence officials "to communicate classified national defense information over the course of a decade," according to the Justice Department.

  • Court documents allege that Ma sought employment with the FBI "in order to once again gain access to classified U.S. government information which he could in turn provide to his [People's Republic of China] handlers."
  • In spring 2019, Ma confirmed his espionage activities to an undercover FBI employee that he believed was a member of Chinese intelligence, stating that he wanted "the motherland" to succeed.

What they're saying: “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 Justice Department official John 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.”

The state of play: Amid broader geopolitical tensions over issues ranging from the coronavirus to Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong, the U.S. and China have also been engaged in a recent tit-for-tat over espionage.

  • President Trump shuttered the Chinese consulate in Houston over allegations that China has been using it to spy.
  • Beijing responded by ordering the U.S. consulate in the western Chinese city of Chengdu to close.

Go deeper: How China became a global power of espionage

Go deeper