Former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee pleaded guilty to “conspiring to communicate, deliver and transmit national defense information to the People’s Republic of China.” The 54-year-old spy wasn’t the first to plead guilty or be convicted of conspiring with China – not even this year.
Candace Marie Claiborne, a former State Department employee with ties to both Clintons, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to defraud the United States. The People’s Republic of China allegedly gave have her tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and benefits in return for internal documents from the State Department. And another former CIA officer, Kevin Mallory of Leesburg, VA, was convicted in June of 2018 for selling top secret information to the Chinese for $25,000. He too awaits sentencing, and – much like Lee – could serve a life sentence for his crime.
A statement released by the DOJ explains that Lee, who had left the CIA in 2007 and moved to Hong Kong, had received requests for information from Chinese intelligence officers from May 2010 to at least some time in 2011, the majority of which involved sensitive information about the CIA and national defense. On May 14, 2010, a cash deposit was made into Lee’s personal bank account in Hong Kong to the tune of $138,000 HKD – the equivalent of about $17,468 USD. It was the first of many such deposits. Between May 2010 and December 2013, Lee took in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In August 2012, the FBI raided Lee’s hotel room in Honolulu, HI, discovering in his personal luggage a thumb drive. They forensically imaged the drive and recovered a deleted document describing, among other things, where the CIA would assign certain officers and the timeframe of a sensitive operation. This information was classified at the Secret level. The FBI also found an address book and handwritten notes made by Lee, which mostly related to his work for the CIA before 2004. Included in this information were intelligence provided by CIA assets, the true names of those assets, and operational meeting locations, phone numbers, and covert facilities.
Lee had been interviewed by the CIA in 2012 and the FBI in 2013. He didn’t tell the CIA about the taskings from the Chinese, but he did tell the FBI – though he claimed not to have kept any written requests, as they could incriminate him. Lee also initially denied any knowledge of the document recovered from the thumb drive, though he did later admit to creating it in response to two taskings. He considered giving it to the Chinese but claimed he never actually delivered. Of course, given his history of lying to the CIA and FBI during these interviews, only to change his story when confronted with evidence later, it’s difficult to take the former spy at his word.
U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger said that Lee “sold out his country, conspired to become a spy for a foreign government, and then repeatedly lied to investigators about his conduct.”
“By knowingly aiding a foreign government, Mr. Lee put our country’s national security at serious risk and also threatened the safety and personal security of innocent people, namely his former intelligence colleagues,” said John Brown, the FBI’s assistant director of counterintelligence.
In 2017, The New York Times was told by four alleged former CIA agents that as many as 20 informants had been killed or imprisoned between 2010 and 2012. Shortly after Lee’s arrest, The Washington Post cited “current and former officials” as believing the spy’s betrayal played a role in the disappearances. Though it would be difficult to rule out other factors, the timing of Lee’s interactions with Chinese intelligence officers suggests he may well be responsible for their discovery of U.S. operations, which has been called the worst the worst intelligence breach in decades.
Lee was arrested after five years of investigation in January of 2018. When he goes for sentencing on August 23, he could get life, though as the DOJ statement points out, sentences for federal crimes typically fall short of the maximum.
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