Chinese Checkers

A new spy case and a study shed light on murky U.S.-China espionage wars.

Greetings from the Rhode Island shore, where I’m squeezing in a last few days of ocean dips, lobster and the legendary local quahog “stuffies” before shifting SpyTalk into higher gear after Labor Day.

One thing I‘m keeping an eye on is the uptick in China spy cases over the past several months. One of the more intriguing cases is the August 14 arrest of a Hong Kong-born former CIA officer who the feds say has been spying for China for decades. Alexander Yuk Ching Ma joined the CIA in 1982, resigned in 1989 and moved to Shanghai, where he “lived and worked…before arriving in Hawaii in 2001.” There, according to the charging documents, Ma applied for a job with the FBI, which eventually hired him as a linguist. At some point he linked up with a Shanghai-born relative, also a former CIA officer, in a scheme to steal U.S. secrets “over the course of a decade” for his Beijing spy handlers. 

But here’s just one of the many tantalizing things about the case: Ma and his relative, who has been identified by Hong Kong-based Apple News as Ma Dawei, “who at one point was active in the overseas dissident movement,” were videotaped in a Hong Kong hotel room in 2001 handing over CIA secrets to their Ministry of State Security (MSS) handlers in exchange for $50,000. Ma Dawei, who resigned in 1983 after he was accused of using his job to help Chinese nationals enter the United States, was not charged because he has dementia, court documents say.

Ma Dawei’s history alone may be worth a spy movie. According to Apple News, he posed as a democracy advocate in Los Angeles, founding “Chinese rights and political participation groups” and giving interviews and publishing his views on the Internet. He also opened an office that specializes “in the business of Chinese immigration to the United States,” Apple News reported.

The secrets the two Ma’s spilled included the identity of five CIA agents, details on CIA “international operations,” and “cryptographic information used in classified and sensitive CIA communications and reports,” according to the FBI’s affidavit. And more. That’s big, even allowing for the typical exaggeration of government charging documents.

Yet it wasn’t until 2019, according to the court documents, that an undercover FBI agent approached Alexander Ma masquerading as a Chinese intelligence officer and induced him to confirm “his espionage activities.” That’s an eyebrow-raising, years-long gap.

As Bill Bishop, who writes the authoritative Sinocism newsletter on China, wrote, “the timeline is just weird, with a gap of nine years based on the affidavit between 2010-2019, when the FBI went after Ma. How did the FBI seemingly suddenly discover what Ma had been doing nearly two decades before?”

Maybe it didn’t. Methinks many other wheels were at work in this case. Would anyone here be surprised to learn that the FBI (or some other security agency) discovered Ma’s perfidy years earlier and used him to feed false information to Chinese intelligence? Or that Beijing discovered the possible U.S. false feed op at some point and coerced Ma (and his relative) back into the fold? 

One clue: “On or about August 10, 2004, one day before reporting to work with the FBI,” according to its affidavit, “MA telephoned a suspected accomplice and stated that he would be working for ‘the other side,’” ie, the FBI. A month later, the FBI says he copied “digital photographic images of documents related to guided missile and weapons system technology research” onto a CD. In 2005, it says, he “brought a digital camera into the secure FBI workspace and photographed translation documents.”

The text represents the point of view of the author

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein

JEFF STEIN is a longtime Washington, DC-based investigative reporter specializing in U.S. national security issues. On Oct. 1, 2013 he joined the revamped NEWSWEEK, which began featuring his long-running SpyTalk column, which was first launched in 2005 at Congressional Quarterly, where he was national security editor, and previous to that, the founding editor of CQ/Homeland Security. In 2008, SpyTalk went daily as a blog, and in 2010, moved to The Washington Post.
An Army Intelligence case officer in Vietnam, Jeff is also the author of 3 books: A Murder in Wartime (St. Martin's Press 1992), Saddam's Bombmaker (with Khidhir Hamza, Scribners 2000) and The Vietnam Fact Book (Dell 1984). In the 1980s, he was Deputy Foreign News editor for UPI. He has also over the years written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and such major magazines as Foreign Policy, New York, Rolling Stone, GQ, the Village Voice, the Nation, The New Republic and Playboy
He has appeared frequently on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, the BBC, PBS and NPR as a commentator on national security issues.

Specialties: Writing, editing, publishing, national security, foreign policy, military policy, intelligence, espionage

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