A former CIA agent suspected of helping China dismantle the agency’s spy network in the country was charged on Tuesday with conspiring to commit espionage.
A former CIA agent is charged with spying for China
The suspect, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, is a 53-year-old naturalized US citizen who worked for the CIA from 1994 to 2007 as a case officer.
The Chinese government killed at least a dozen CIA sources in China between 2010 and 2012, crippling the US’ intelligence network in the country, the New York Times reported last year.
Lee was at the center of a US investigation into how the identities of these sources were exposed, according to the newspaper.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Lee’s case has offered a glimpse into how China has worked to infiltrate US intelligence.
Over the years, China’s intelligence agencies have become more sophisticated, catching up with the their American and Russian counterparts, Zach Dorfman, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, told Inkstone.
“In the past, China’s Ministry of State Security was very interested in tracking potential threats or perceived threats to Chinese sovereignty abroad,” Dorfman said.
“Now, you see them doing more traditional forms of intelligence gathering," he said – including the recruitment of sources abroad.
Lee’s indictment for espionage is unusual because the charge carries a very high burden of proof.
To indict someone for espionage, prosecutors have to prove a person’s willfulness and knowledge that they are transmitting classified information to a foreign government, explained Dorfman.
From US to China
According to the indictment, two Chinese intelligence agents approached Lee in 2010, offering payment in exchange for information.
Lee, who maintained a top-secret clearance during his employment with the CIA, was given email addresses to communicate covertly with the Chinese agents. He received instructions from them until at least 2011, prosecutors allege.
After leaving the agency in 2007, Lee moved to Hong Kong and started working for private and his own companies.
Prosecutors allege that he retained classified information after leaving the CIA: material he later passed on to Chinese intelligence.
In 2012, the CIA and FBI lured Lee back to the US using a fake promise of a contract with the CIA, according to court documents.
While he was in the US, FBI agents searched Lee’s hotel room and luggage and found national defense-related materials, including true names and phone numbers of spies and covert CIA employees.
FBI agents questioned Lee five times in 2013. He was allowed to return to Hong Kong as counterintelligence agents continued their investigations.
Before his arrest in January, Lee worked as the head of security of auction house Christie’s in the city, reported the South China Morning Post.