In a counterintelligence coup, the FBI’s Honolulu’s Division uncovered a long term penetration of the division by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). On August 13, the FBI filed an affidavit concerning the espionage activities of Alexander Yuk Ching Ma and an unidentified co-conspirator who is related by blood to Ma. Ma allegedly began his multi-year relationship with the MSS in 2001. From 2004 through 2010, Ma worked within the FBI’s Honolulu Division.
Who is Alexander Ma and his co-conspirator?
Ma is a naturalized U.S. citizen, age 67, born in Hong Kong, and emigrated with his family to Honolulu, HI circa 1968. In 1982, Ma began an 8-year stint with the CIA where he was assigned abroad, primarily in East Asia. From August 2004 through at least 2010, Ma worked as a contract linguist within the FBI’s Honolulu Division.
From 2001 through at least 2010, Ma was a source for China’s MSS.
Ma’s unidentified co-conspirator is an 85-year-old male, who is also a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is a blood relative of Ma’s. The individual was employed by the CIA from 1971-1983. He resigned from the CIA when it was discovered that he was inappropriately using his “official position” to assist Chinese nationals in obtaining entry into the United States. This elderly individual suffers an advanced and debilitating cognitive disease, and thus the FBI chose not to charge him.
Ma’s initial meetings with the MSS
In March 2001, Ma and his co-conspirator traveled to Hong Kong and met with a handful of MSS officers. The meetings, which occurred over a series of days, permitted a detailed debriefing of Ma and his co-conspirator on their CIA careers, which had terminated some 12 years prior. Ma and the co-conspirator were paid $50,000 in U.S. currency for this debriefing.
During these initial meetings, Ma and the co-conspirator provided to the MSS a plethora of information on the CIA and its activities vis-à-vis China. The videotape revealed information provided included:
- CIA work experience and activities;
- Information concerning CIA international operations, including cover used by CIA officers and CIA activities;
- Cryptographic information used in classified and sensitive CIA communications and reports;
- Information concerning internal structure and organization of the CIA;
- Information concerning CIA officer identities;
- Information concerning CIA human assets;
- Information concerning CIA operational tradecraft;
- Information concerning CIA technical departments;
- Information concerning CIA secure communications practices; and
- Information concerning CIA staffing practices
Ma had no current information, nor did he have access. He would work to remedy that in short order.
Ma Gets Access to More Information
Following the meetings in December 2002, Ma applied to the FBI as a Special Agent and was turned down due to age restrictions of the position. He subsequently applied to be a contract Chinese language linguist for the Honolulu Division of the FBI and was hired in August 2004.
From August 2004 through at least November 2010, Ma routinely and regularly compromised classified materials of the FBI’s Honolulu Division to the MSS.
Given the ease which Ma exfiltrated the classified information from the FBI, one may surmise the FBI’s insider threat program within FBI Honolulu was deficient.
Ma’s Espionage Actions
While the content of the information which Ma purloined from the FBI has not been identified in the affidavit, his activities on behalf of the MSS are, and include:
- September 8, 2004 – burned a CD-ROM disc with photographs of documents.
- From July 27 through October 3, on eight separate occasions, Ma used a digital camera and photographed translated documents which he removed from the FBI.
- From May 2, 2007 through May 8, 2008, on four separate occasions, Ma photocopied and removed copies of translated documents from the FBI.
- On February 2, 2009 and again on April 21, 2009, Ma photographed and removed classified documents and copies of translated documents from the FBI.
- On about January 14, 2010, using a cellular phone with camera, Ma photographed documents from the secure workspace within the FBI.
- From November 2 through November 30, 2010, Ma inserted a digital storage device into his FBI computer in the FBI Honolulu’s secure work area.
During the above time-frame, Ma or his spouse made trips to China carrying the stolen FBI information for which he was handsomely remunerated. The affidavit indicates that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol noted that Ma was carrying large amounts of U.S. currency when returning from China.
The uncovering of Ma
The March 2001 meetings were videotaped and recorded by the MSS and copies of these recordings found their way into the hands of U.S. counterintelligence prior to January 2019. The affidavit does not detail how this occurred. Nevertheless, those video tapes are a counterintelligence coup by any measure.
In January 2019, the FBI, with the knowledge of the contents of the March 2001 MSS debriefings in hand, contacted Ma using a false-flag approach with an FBI employee posing as an MSS representative. The undercover FBI employee showed Ma the video tape recordings of the March 2001 meetings to establish the former’s bona fides.
He was satisfied that he was talking with a representative of the MSS. Ma allowed himself to be debriefed under the guise of an internal MSS corruption investigation. Ma apparently commented how “he wanted to see the motherland succeed.”
One may surmise from reading the affidavit that the FBI learned the full extent of Ma’s treasonous actions from Ma as he provided historical detail and perspective which were not available on the March 2001 MSS taped debrief of Ma and his co-conspirator.
Counterintelligence Lessons Learned
Ma and his co-conspirator were of value to the Chinese for a number of MSS counterintelligence reasons.
While their CIA information was 12-years old, it provided the MSS with ground truth as it was experienced by these two individuals. In addition, the uncovering of covert intelligence officers never goes out of date. Furthermore, the information provided by Ma could and probably was used to validate other MSS sources, especially those sources for which the MSS was having difficulty corroborating their intelligence.
The direct action by Ma to penetrate the FBI was highly successful came to light only years after the fact.
Insider Threat Program?
One must ask, where was the insider threat program within the Honolulu FBI?
Was there not an alert within the information security system when an external device was inserted into the computer? Mandatory bag inspections into and out of the secure area would have raised the stakes on detection (but may not have thwarted Ma) of Ma’s digital camera and cellular phone, both prohibited from the secure area.
We all know that counterintelligence is luck as much as it is analysis. Having a copy of the March 2001 debriefing of Ma and his co-conspirator provided to the FBI allowed them to walk the proverbial cat back and uncover the depth of Ma’s skulduggery.
No doubt the year (2019-2020) between the FBI undercover interviews with Ma and his arrest have been spent on damage control and FBI source protection.
Stay Vigilant. The Chinese Espionage Trail is Long
Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John C. Demers commented, “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,. 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 faces life in prison if convicted.