In a statement, the Justice Department said Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong, was arrested late last week on charges unsealed Monday of conspiracy to communicate national defense information to aid a foreign government.
Ma is scheduled to make his initial appearance in a Hawaii court on Tuesday. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Ma was arrested Friday, days after he accepted $2,000 from an undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent posing as a Chinese intelligence officer. During the meeting, Ma told the undercover agent that he was willing to continue working for China and that he wanted the “motherland” to succeed in its mission, federal prosecutors said in the complaint.
“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 said in a statement.
The complaint states that Ma, who joined the CIA in 1982 and maintained a Top Secret clearance, began selling information to the People’s Republic of China in March 2001 during a trip to his native Hong Kong.
During three days of meetings in the Chinese semi-autonomous city, Ma is accused of providing China with information about the CIA’s personnel, operations and methods of concealing communications in return for $50,000.
Ma then moved to Hawaii and applied to the FBI office there to gain access to classified U.S. government information for China, the complaint states, adding that he was hired as a contract linguist at the Honolulu field office in 2004 to review and translate 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 Justice Department said in the statement. “Ma took some of the stolen documents and images with him on his frequent trips to China with intent to provide them to his handlers.”
Federal prosecutors accuse Ma of returning to the United States from these trips with thousands in cash and expensive gifts, such as a new set of golf clubs.
Digital images of documents related to guided missile and weapons system technology research as well as photographs of translation documents were among the information Ma is accused of selling to China, the complaint states.
“The betrayal is never worth it,” Demers said. “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.”
Prosecutors said Ma worked with a relative, who was also a CIA agent until resigning in 1983 after using his position to assist Chinese nationals in obtaining entry to the United States.
Identified as co-conspirator #1 in the complaint, Ma’s relative worked with Ma to deliver sensitive information to China, including identifying human sources and individuals in photographs, but no charges were brought against him as he “suffers from an advanced and debilitating cognitive disease,” the complaint states.
The United States has charged several people, including members of its intelligence community, over the past few years with spying for China as relations between Washington and Beijing fray.
Last year, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a 13-year veteran of the CIA who was long suspected of espionage, pleaded guilty to spying for China.
And most recently, the Trump administration last month closed the Chinese consulate in Houston as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as “a hub for spying and intellectual property theft.”