A former CIA case officer has been charged with conspiring to pass classified information to the Chinese government, including the identities of covert U.S. operatives and their human intelligence assets in China, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Virginia on one count of conspiracy to gather or deliver national defense information to aid a foreign government, and two counts of unlawfully retaining documents related to the national defense.
Lee, who worked for the CIA from 1994 to 2007, is alleged to have worked with two Chinese intelligence officers to steal classified documents in exchange for a series of cash payments.
He also prepared handwritten notes containing the true names and phone numbers of intelligence assets and CIA employees in China, along with operational notes from asset meetings and the locations of covert facilities, according to the indictment.
“The allegations in this case are troubling,” acting U.S. Attorney Tracy Doherty-McCormick said in a statement. “Conspiring with foreign agents poses a real and serious threat toward our national security.”
After leaving CIA service, Lee and his family settled in Hong Kong. There, Chinese intelligence officers approached him and offered to pay for classified information, prosecutors say. He eventually agreed to accept assignments from the intelligence officers, setting up secret email accounts to covertly communicate with them, according to the indictment.
Lee was arrested at JFK International Airport in New York in January, several years after federal investigators began to target him as a possible spy for China.
FBI agents conducted court-authorized searches of Lee’s hotel rooms in Virginia and Hawaii in 2012, where they discovered a 49-page notebook and 21-page address book containing highly classified CIA information.
“The datebook contained handwritten information pertaining to, but not limited to, operational notes from asset meetings, operational meeting locations, operational phone numbers, true names of assets, and covert facilities,” the FBI stated in a sworn affidavit.
Lee’s notes also “contained true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, as well as the addresses of CIA facilities,” the affidavit stated.
It remains unclear why the FBI waited so long after uncovering the notebooks to arrest Lee. He repeatedly lied to federal investigators about his travel to China and his actions overseas during five interviews in May and June 2013, prosecutors said.
Some high-level U.S. intelligence officials said they believe Lee’s work for the Chinese government led to the collapse of the CIA’s spy network in that country, according to a Jan. 16 report from The New York Times.
Officials told The New York Times that the agency began “losing its informants in China” two years before investigators searched Lee’s hotel rooms.
Ultimately, more than a dozen CIA assets were killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government, and Lee emerged as a prime suspect as the source of the leaks, which were described as the worst intelligence failure in China in years.
If convicted, Lee faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
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