Nearly six years after the US law enforcement officials launched an investigation into the mysterious disappearance of several informants and agents in China, former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was taken into custody on espionage charges shortly after landing at New York’s JFK Airport on Monday.
Lee’s arrest comes after the US government concluded that he handed over the names of the Central Intelligence Agency’s agents working inside the Chinese government.
An internal investigation launched in 2012 looked into the possibility of Chinese cyber-attacks against the CIA’s servers and the possibility of a mole working for China’s MSS intelligence services had somehow gained access to the Agency’s roster of deep penetration assets.
In a story reminiscent of noted Cold War double agents Aldrich Ames and Oleg Gordievsky, investigators discovered that Lee had handed over secret information to the Chinese government beginning from about 2010. The CIA subsequently lost at least 20 of its informers inside China, 12 of whom were later executed between 2010 and 2012.
According to the US Justice Department, Lee, a naturalised US citizen who served in the American Army from 1982 to 1986, began working for the CIA in 1994. He maintained top secret clearance and signed numerous non-disclosure agreements during his tenure at the agency but later resigned in 2007 to move with his family to Hong Kong.
Several of Lee’s former colleagues told the New York Times that he left Langley a disgruntled case officer “after his career had plateaued”.
Lee returned to the US in 2012, living only a short distance from the CIA’s headquarters in northern Virginia.
Shortly after his return, FBI agents began to suspect Lee of passing on classified material to the Chinese. Federal agents searched Lee’s hotel rooms in Hawaii and Virginia and found in Lee’s possessions two notebooks that contained handwritten classified information of the real names and phone numbers of intelligence assets in China. Lee has also written detailed notes about operational meetings, rendezvous points and the locations of covert facilities that pertained to China.
The information contained in the notebooks matched information contained in classified cables that Lee had written and sent while serving in the CIA, according to prosecutors.
Lee was not taken into custody at the time and was allowed to travel back to Hong Kong, but was questioned on five separate occasions a year later by the FBI upon his return to the US.
Both the CIA and FBI had concluded that Lee might be a prime suspect as evidence continued to mount that someone with top secret security clearance was regularly passing on information about the CIA’s operations in China.
Former members of the US intelligence community believe the FBI lured Lee back to the US on Monday with a contract offer from his former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency. Contract work is common for former CIA case officers and the FBI may have used the ruse on Monday to allay Lee’s fears that he could be the prime suspect in the espionage case.
Though the CIA and FBI have refused to comment on the case, Lee has been charged with the unlawful retention of national defence information. If convicted, he will recieve a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.