Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons

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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  1. Why did it take so long ? Who is in charge of policing the security of the USA ? We have a serious problem. 100% of the security clearances should be removed and investigated. When convicted, they need to be executed by firing squad. Without serious consequences, it will continue. The monetary rewards is to great. Also, anyone holding a clearance or political office must have an annual IRS audit. Any person displaying wealth assets beyond their income st be targeted. Off shore bank accounts and assets. What the hell is Homeland Security doing? Need to cut dept budgets until the personnel are seized. Directors and supervisors fired for incompetence.

  2. Now since the beginning of time the World has ben full of spies, and the USA is not immune from sending spies into other countries, remember Julia Childs was a WWII spy along with several other notable persons including a Hollywood male star, now what exactly do you think all intelligent agencies in the World do, most certainly do not show up in the country they are going to spy on and announce they are spies. There is another type of spy which has been around for centuries as well it is our own industrial spies who get jobs with corporations to find out how and what they are doing and report back to the company they work for so they can start doing what the other country is doing, and then there is the Law enforcement spies called undercover police, which do exactly the same like the ones embedded in the protesters.
    Some should get a life Spying is nothing new and every company and a lot of persons do it like the nosey neighbor, let the authorities handle it, and get the politics out of police work.

  3. I’m a conservative so not a fan of Republicans like Mitch McConnell. I’m not trying to sow discord here but this story brings out a lot of concern we should all have about the loyalties of first generation Americans from some countries. Call me a racists if you chose but I wonder how much his Chinese wife whose father is a powerful Chinese industrialist influences Mitch’s decisions. I do hope and he probably will win reelection but I want him out as Senate Majority Leader.

  4. If by some chance, Biden should get in office, we are doomed. He and his backers are Chinese lovers and they’ll open all doors to the Commies.

  5. Its the Confucias Academies on US colleges as spybeds for Chinese Intel via students who have orders from CCP to spy on US tech & then via Chinese run firms in the US etc etc

  6. round them all up and confiscate all of their files and then leave them in lock up, and investigate everyone, and then send them all home, and that includes the students , and all of these so called high tech workers, FIND and DEPORT

  7. The CCP has had spies here since the Demon-crats sold out China to the Communists in 1949. Their heavy infiltration began during the Clinton regime, even being allowed to steal patented ideas from American inventors. They were ignored by Bush 43 and his crowd. Then, they became truly brazen under the Osama bin Obama regime.
    Now that we have a President who actually wants to put America First, we’re going to see a great deal more of this sort of Swamp Draining. If, somehow, the Demon-crats are unable to steal the upcoming election, we will see much more of this action against America’s enemies.

  8. True. Those whose families have fled and suffered from Red Chinese tyranny are probably among the most loyal Americans. But those who have ongoing connections of any kind with The People’s Republic of Frigging Red China are a tough fit for an American security clearance.

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