Ex-CIA Agent Pleads Guilty to Spying for China
On Wednesday, May 1, 2019, the United States Department of Justice revealed that former Central Intelligence Agency officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, has admitted to conspiring with China to pass US intelligence secrets that may have contributed to the disastrous crippling of the United States’s CIA operation in China since 2010.
After serving in the US Army from 1982 to 1986, Lee entered employment with the CIA in 1994. However, Lee resigned from his assignment as a CIA case officer in 2007 and moved to Hong Kong. In 2010, he was approached by two Chinese agents who offered to pay him $100,000 and take care of him “for life” if Lee handed over intelligence knowledge from his time at the CIA — most notably information on a dozen or more Chinese citizens who secretly cooperated with the CIA, with Lee revealing their true identities and their whereabouts. The deal resulted in the jailing and execution of network of informants, causing some media reports to speculate that Lee played a part in the failure of CIA operations in China.
“I conspired to gather and send secret information to the People’s Republic of China,” Lee admitted to Senior US District Judge T. S. Ellis III at the hearing at the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia on Wednesday.
In exchange for Lee’s guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop two lesser charges that were previously levied against him regarding the illegal retention and exchange of secret information; however, Lee continues to face a minimum sentence of 21 years. The charge, furthermore, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, although Judge Ellis has emphasized that he will impose a sentence as “he sees fit” when Lee is sentenced on August 23.
Lee’s case is the latest in a series of cases involving former intelligence officers illegally disclosing information to China. In March, former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency office Ron Rockwell Hansen pleaded guilty to a deal with China to transmit classified information in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last June, former CIA case officer, Kevin Mallory, was convicted for espionage charges for sharing classified documents to China. Additionally, last month, a former General Electric Company engineer and a Chinese businessman were outed by the Justice Department and charged with economic espionage and conspiring to steal trade secrets from General Electric Company.
Although born in Hong Kong, Lee grew up in Hawaii and was a naturalized American citizen. Upon leaving the CIA and in June 2010, he started a cigarette import business in Hong Kong with his business partner, a former Hong Kong police officer who US prosecutors allege had ties to Hong Kong intelligence. Lee’s business partner organized a meeting with two people who were eventually revealed to be Chinese intelligence operatives. Although Lee reported this meeting to the CIA, he did not disclose that he was offered money.
Prosecutors, furthermore, stressed that Mr. Lee compiled a list of names of CIA assets and other information about CIA facilities. It is still unclear whether his attempt to delete the documents of information was a result of his disclosure to Chinese intelligence.
While Lee’s guilty plea was met with satisfactory statements by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department officials, Lee’s lawyer, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., asserted that the US government failed to provide actual evidence that classified information was actually given to Chinese operatives and played a role in the crippling of CIA operations in China.
The exact cause of the collapse of the CIA’s informant network from 2010 onwards is still a subject of debate. The possibility that classified information allegedly passed to Chinese intelligence through Mr. Lee (and other former US intelligence officers) is but one theory among many on the failure of CIA operations in China, including the possible breach of CIA systems by Chinese hackers.