A former Central Intelligence Officer, 53-year-old Jerry Chung Shing Lee was arrested on Monday, after a long FBI investigation dating back to the Obama years.
Lee was charged Tuesday with unlawful possession of secrets, but is suspected of a much worse crime: betraying U.S. informants in China. He worked for the CIA between 1994 and 2007, when he left for Hong Kong.
He was charged with a single count of unlawfully possessing national defense information. This was based on a search that found him to be in possession of two notebooks containing the true names of CIA assets and covert facilities, which are some of the agency’s most closely guarded secrets. Lee began working at the CIA in 1994 and had a top-secret clearance.
Here is the timeline:
- 2010: Information gathered by the US from sources deep inside the Chinese government bureaucracy start to dry up
- 2011: Informants begin to disappear. It is not clear whether the CIA has been hacked or whether a mole has helped the Chinese to identify agents
- 2012: FBI begins investigation
- May 2014: Five Chinese army officers are charged with stealing trade secrets and internal documents from US companies. Later that same month, China says it has been a main target for US spies
- 2015: CIA withdraws staff from the US embassy in Beijing, fearing data stolen from government computers could expose its agents
- April 2017: Beijing offers hefty cash rewards for information on foreign spies
- May 2017: Four former CIA officials tell the New York Times that up to 20 CIA informants were killed or imprisoned by the Chinese between 2010 and 2012
- June 2017: Former US diplomatic officer Kevin Mallory is arrested and charged with giving top-secret documents to a Chinese agent
- January 2018: Former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee is arrested
An investigation of the former CIA case officer began in 2012, five years after he left the agency, the Justice Department says. Two years prior to the FBI’s inquiry, the US had begun losing informants in China. This begged the question; how were so many American sources being leaked to the Chinese government?
Some officials reportedly believed that the informant may have been inside of the CIA, while others hypothesized that the Chinese government may have hacked the CIA’s communications sources, reports The Times.
“A court affidavit says that in 2012, while Lee and his family were in Honolulu during a layover en route from Hong Kong to the U.S., the FBI executed a court-authorized search of his hotel room. There, agents found and photographed the contents of two small books that contained handwritten notes “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 notebooks contained information of varying degrees of classification, but according to the the affidavit, at least one page contained top-secret information that “could cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States” if revealed.
NPR’s Rob Schmitz, reporting from Shanghai, says it is unclear why the FBI did not arrest Lee once the notebooks were discovered.”
CIA and FBI officials were mystified and mortified as one after another of their best agents in China were jailed or executed. In 2012, one source said, the FBI lured Lee back to the U.S. with a phony job offer, but no charges were filed and he returned to Hong Kong.
But sources say Lee was the subject of an intense, and extremely secret, counterintelligence investigation. That included searches of his hotel rooms in Hawaii and Virginia in 2012, according to the court records filed Tuesday.
“A review of photographs taken during the August 13, 2012, search in Hawaii and the August 15, 2012, search in Virginia revealed that, during his stay in both hotels, Lee possessed two small books (the “books”) best described as a datebook and an address book,” the arrest affidavit said, adding that the books contained classified 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 affidavit said. “The address book contained approximately twenty-one pages. The address book contained true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, as well as the addresses of CIA facilities.”
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