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.”

All of which means they were onto him early. What did they do about it?

This is wilderness of mirrors stuff, the murky terrain of double and triple agents in the spy-vs-spy counterintelligence landscape. Or as Eli Miranda, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu division put it in the Ma case, “These cases are very complicated and take years if not decades to bring to a conclusion.”

If you suspect there’s been an escalation in Chinese espionage prosecutions under the Trump administration, meanwhile, you’d be right. Over a dozen cases have been brought by the Justice Department just since 2018, which probably reflects both the president’s priorities to highlight Beijing’s active measures against the U.S. (over Russia’s) as well as the real, multi-pronged effort China is waging to steal our economic, scientific and military secrets and covertly influence American politics.

“There has most certainly been an uptake in China's espionage activities over the past ten years,” Nicholas Eftimiades, one of our former top government experts on Chinese intelligence, tells SpyTalk. “However the recent increase in arrests since 2018 are a result of the FBI China initiative.” The U.S. is also widening its response to include closer attention to “whole-of-government” Chinese activities here outside of its intelligence agencies.

A former CIA, State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency senior officer, Eftimiades is publishing a new monograph this weekend on “Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics,” an advance copy of which he shared with SpyTalk. A followup on his landmark 1994 study of the same, the new work is based on “years of collecting, compiling, collating, and analyzing hundreds of China’s foreign intelligence operations,” as well as “thousands of hours of research and interviews of Chinese intelligence officers, diplomats, defectors, and recruited assets.”

Yet even Eftimiades, who now teaches at Penn State, says the true scope of Chinese intelligence remains elusive.

“Even with a review of hundreds of espionage cases there remain basic questions,” he writes. “For example, how many people are spying worldwide on behalf of the Chinese government? Do the hundreds of cases in this work represent 90 percent of the total or 10 percent? Every good counterintelligence officer would start out asking these questions. I do not know the answer and neither does anyone else.”

What we do know is that both sides are upping their game. Or as Eftimiades puts it, “MSS espionage tradecraft has improved over the last four years, at least partially in response to U.S. counterintelligence efforts.”

But the U.S. needs to go more on the offense, he argues, with “a strategic approach to counter China’s massive efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property and technology” that goes beyond arresting spies.  

And so it goes. If we’re lucky, we’ll be privy to more details on U.S.-China spy wars as the Alexander Ma case plays out—some of which, as often happens in such cases, will be embarrassing to the CIA and FBI. Most likely, however, the U.S. government will want to bury the whole matter in a guilty plea. And we’ll move on to the next case in the wilderness of mirrors.