On Tuesday, former CIA Officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was arrested on charges of unlawful possession of classified information. Those charges only scratch the surface of the damage Lee’s betrayal inflicted on U.S. intelligence operations in China.
Lee’s arrest is based on a 2012 FBI search that found him to be in possession of two notebooks containing the true names of CIA assets and covert facilities. These are the kinds of secrets, the core information, that drives intelligence collection. Where machine collected intelligence is important, human-vetted intelligence is invaluable.
Sources believe that the classified information Lee provided to China is directly responsible for the deaths or imprisonment of some 20 U.S. sources over a two-year period beginning in 2010. CIA intelligence collection activities inside China were effectively crippled for the ensuing years.
The FBI formed a task force and a mole hunt commenced as the CIA watched source after source executed or jailed. Eventually the investigation led to Lee, who left government service in 2007. The FBI lured Lee back to the United States from his native Hong Kong with an offer of a job in 2012 but no charges were filed at that time. Lee returned to Hong Kong but remained under investigation.
According to an affidavit filed Wednesday in Virginia District Court, Lee was the subject of an intense counterintelligence investigation. During a 2012 trip to the United States (presumably for the false job offer) the FBI searched his hotel rooms in Hawaii and Virginia.
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.
“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 continued. “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.”
Intelligence watchers believe this is the most detrimental espionage breach since the 1990’s when CIA Officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen were arrested for spying on behalf of Russia. Ames and Hanssen’s betrayal also resulted in the deaths of multiple agents and serious compromise to the USIC’s collection capabilities.
Sources say it is unlikely that Lee will be charged for espionage. This might be to prevent revealing classified details, such as what the USIC might have garnered about his recruitment, in open court. It may also be due to a lack of sufficient evidence to make an espionage charge stick.
Lee is a naturalized U.S. citizen who began his work for the CIA in 1994. Little is known about his initial recruitment by the CIA or his subsequent recruitment by the PRC. Conspiracy theories have begun to form about his potential as a sleeper agent.
SOFREP will update this story as more details are revealed.