The Curious Case of Alexander Yuk Ching Ma

A multi-agency failure, including the naturalization vetting process

By Dan Cadman on August 24, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest last week in Hawaii of longtime naturalized citizen and former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma on charges of spying for the People's Republic of China.

In some ways, the case exhibits the pattern followed by other, similar cases: PRC spies immigrate to the United States, naturalize at the first opportunity, and in the meantime worm their way into critical jobs in government or industry where they have access to secrets that can be stolen. In fact, the press announcement quotes Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers as 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. 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.

Yet in other ways, the case is filled with unexplained anomalies that are worth reflecting on, some of which are hinted at in Demers's comments. For example, although as noted, Ma was a CIA officer — from 1982 to 1989 — in 2004 he became a linguist for the FBI. (Interesting that DOJ didn't add that to the headline — perhaps because the FBI is an agency of that department and they wanted to downplay that hiring blunder?) This is not a natural career progression: Transitioning from an officer-corps position in one agency to a support position in another doesn't bespeak rising to the pinnacles, although from the viewpoint of a spy, both provide golden opportunities.

Then there is the fact that Ma was born and raised in Hong Kong, not the mainland, at a time when it was still a British crown colony. Most readers know that the vast majority of Hong Kong Chinese are engaged in acts of resistance against the People's Republic of China (PRC) government's heavy-handed new rules designed to repress democracy there, in violation of the treaty with Britain that handed Hong Kong back to the mainland. But this proves, if proof were needed, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tentacles reaching wherever in the world that it perceives its interests at stake and does whatever needed to cultivate spies and suborn other governments.

Third is the fact that, according to the Washington Post, clear back in 2001 Ma and an unnamed co-conspirator were videotaped in a hotel room in Hong Kong handing over classified documents and being debriefed over a series of three days in return for $50,000. Who possessed that video? The U.S. government? If so, why did they allow him to join the FBI? If not, where was it?

The Post tells us that Ma's co-conspirator was also an officer of the CIA who "resigned after he was found to have been using his position to help Chinese nationals get into the United States, according to the [arrest] affidavit." In other words, he was an alien smuggler. The Post further tells us that this co-conspirator was a relative of Ma's. What happened to background vetting at either the CIA and FBI, in which not only the applicant, but, significantly, also the applicant's relatives are looked into when they hail from foreign locations in order to ensure that they aren't spies, or amenable to blackmail once employed? Surely any adequate background investigation should have revealed the linkage. Clearly this was a multi-agency failure. But let me make clear that the failure also includes the naturalization vetting process that resulted in both Ma and his co-conspirator/relative obtaining their citizenship. All too often, the most precious gift the United States can grant is handed out by our own adjudicating officials like snacks at the afternoon matinee.

Finally, we find out from the Post that:

The affidavit does not identify the alleged co-conspirator, who is now 85, but says he is a relative of Ma. Prosecutors did not seek an arrest warrant for him because he has a "debilitating cognitive disease," according to the affidavit. [Emphasis added.]

I am astonished. Almost certainly the individual's "debilitating" disease is some form of dementia, probably Alzheimer's, but I cannot help wonder about the wisdom or justice of simply leaving things be. Why should this traitor be left in possession of his citizenship? Likewise Ma. Both should be denaturalized and deported — Ma after serving whatever sentence of imprisonment may be levied — and the unprosecuted relative as soon as possible. Let his CCP masters provide him the care they owe him for his years of treason and malfeasance here.