A former CIA official was arrested this week, charged with revealing the names of CIA informants to the Chinese government. The information helped the Chinese dismantle one of the U.S.’ most valuable intelligence networks. It’s considered one of the U.S. intelligence community’s worst failures in years.
Notebooks containing handwritten notes of classified information detailing meetings between CIA informants and undercover agents, along with their real identities and phone numbers, were found in the possession of Jerry Chun Shing Lee. Lee, a former U.S. Army service member, had joined the CIA in 1994. He worked there until 2007. Former co-workers say he left the agency unhappily after his career stalled.
The FBI found the notebooks in 2012 when Lee traveled to the U.S. to live with his family in Virginia. He had been living in Hong Kong and working for a well-known auction house. It is unclear why the FBI didn’t arrest Lee after originally discovering the classified material at that time.
The FBI lured Lee back to the U.S. and interviewed him five times in 2013. He made his way back to Hong Kong after being questioned. Lee, who is 53, was arrested at Kennedy Airport in New York this past Monday and charged in federal court in Northern Virginia with the unlawful retention of national defense information. It’s unclear why Lee decided to come to the States this month, knowing of the FBI’s interest in him.
More than a dozen CIA informants have been killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government as a result of his leaks. The losses represented a devastating loss for the CIA. The case confounded officials at the FBI and the CIA. Some counterintelligence officials believed there was a mole inside the CIA giving away names of its informants. Others believed the Chinese government had hacked the CIA’s communications system used to talk to foreign assets. Some though it was a combination of the two. The investigation became a source of friction between the CIA and the FBI. Lee eventually became a prime suspect in the search for a traitor.
Lee appeared in Brooklyn federal court on Tuesday and is being held there while awaiting transfer to Virginia. He does not have legal representation. Officials are concerned that Lee’s case represents a pattern of Chinese intelligence services targeting former agency officials. Doing so is easier than trying to get current CIA officers to cooperate with them, officials said.