The Threat of Chinese American Spies at CIA

The arrest of retired CIA officer and FBI linguist, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma of Honolulu, on espionage charges last week highlight the severity of the Chinese intelligence threat to the United States. It also raises the more uncomfortable issue of the specific threat posed by Chinese Americans in the intelligence community (IC).

Even as a U.S.-born American, when I first gained a high-level security clearance in the 1980s I was rightfully grilled about any family contacts I might have in Communist Cuba, from which my parents had fled before I was born. Fortunately, I had almost no contact back then with any remaining family on the closed communist island. I could not be leveraged in any way.

But close familial ties in, or loyalties to, a foreign communist state were valid grounds for denying a clearance, then, and should still be now.

Today, when mentioning the intelligence threat posed by Chinese nationals in the U.S. or Chinese American citizens with any ties to mainland China, many instinctively recoil claiming racism or discrimination. They shouldn’t, because it is a very real threat – even in our intelligence agencies.

While Americans with links to target adversary countries like China can be exceptional assets to the IC, the dangers need to be balanced against the benefits.

In the case of Ma, he served as a CIA officer from 1967 until he retired in 1989, with assignments in the East-Asia and Pacific region, reports NBC News. Twelve years later prosecutors say “Ma met with at least five officers of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) in a Hong Kong hotel room, where he ‘disclosed a substantial amount of highly classified national defense information,’ including facts about the CIA’s internal organization, methods for communicating covertly, and the identities
of CIA officers and human assets.”

In an FBI surveillance video from the 2001 Hong Kong meeting, Ma was recorded saying that he wanted “the Motherland” to succeed.

But he isn’t the only one. Ma is just the latest in a line of Chinese American spies in the IC, particularly in the CIA. According to prosecutors, reports NBC News, an 85-year-old relative of Ma’s also worked for the CIA and later spied for China. He was not charged because he suffers from “an advanced and debilitating cognitive disease.”

Last year, another former CIA officer, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, pled guilty to conspiring with Chinese intelligence agents starting in 2010 after he left the agency. He received a 19- year prison sentence. NBC News reported that he specifically helped China “compromise the CIA’s method of communicating secretly with its foreign agents, leading to the deaths of Chinese informants.”

And it’s not just the CIA. The Atlantic reported that in 2016, Kun Shan Chun, an FBI employee with a top-secret security clearance, in the New York Field Office was convicted for being an agent of China.

Prosecutors said Chun sent his Chinese handler, “at minimum, information regarding the FBI’s personnel, structure, technological capabilities, general information regarding the FBI’s surveillance strategies, and certain categories of surveillance targets.”

Of course, there are likely far more American citizens without any Chinese heritage spying for China in the U.S., and specifically in the IC, but that doesn’t mean we should not be
extra vigilant when recruiting and vetting those with familial, cultural, or other ties to communist China.

The Chinese intelligence threat is a very real danger.

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Paul Crespo

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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