By: Terresa Monroe-Hamilton
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, aka Zhen Cheng Li, 53, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, was arrested on charges of unlawful retention of national defense information. He’s been a very bad spy. This one was particularly bad as a matter of fact. He’s being charged with mishandling secret information concerning the recruitment of CIA agents, the Justice Department announced. And I would imagine those charges will expand quite a bit. Lee was at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport when he was taken down. But his stomping grounds are in Hong Kong.
Lee had been under surveillance since 2012, when agents secretly searched his Honolulu hotel room and found two books containing secrets about recruited CIA “assets.” You can read the criminal complaint here. Lee is a naturalized US citizen who resides in Hong Kong and works for a well-known auction house. He was in the Army from 1982 to 1986. He graduated from Hawaii Pacific University in 1992.
Lee became a CIA agent in 1994 and was with the agency until 2007. According to FBI Special Agent Kellie R. O’Brien, he was trained in “methods of covert communications, surveillance detection, recruitment of assets, handling of assets, payment of assets, operational security, and documenting, handling and securing classified information.” O’Brien was the FBI counterspy who wrote the criminal complaint filed in federal court on Jan. 13. It was just unsealed. Dana J. Boente, Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security and US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Andrew W. Vale, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, made the announcement.
Lee held a top-secret clearance. He is said to have had access to sensitive compartmented information. That info was utilized to protect intelligence programs. According to court documents, in August 2012, Lee and his family left Hong Kong to return to the United States to live in northern Virginia. While traveling back to the United States, Lee and his family had hotel stays in Hawaii and Virginia. During each of the hotel stays, FBI agents conducted court-authorized searches of Lee’s room and luggage, and found that Lee was in unauthorized possession of materials relating to national defense. Specifically, agents found two small books containing handwritten notes that contained classified information, including, but not limited to, true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, operational notes from asset meetings, operational meeting locations and locations of covert facilities.
There are no specifics in the criminal complaint stating that Lee was spying for China, but it’s a good bet he was. The CIA is not commenting on that and neither is the Department of Justice. That pretty much speaks for itself. The arrest appears linked to the ongoing US counterintelligence probe into how the Chinese government systematically crippled CIA agent networks inside China. The Chinese have been killing off CIA informants and that is probably linked to Lee’s activities. In May, the New York Times reported the Chinese government had unraveled all CIA spying operations in China beginning in 2010. The report, quoting intelligence officials, suggested the loss of the agents was the result of a retired Chinese-American CIA officer who spied for China.
Because of the betrayal, China eliminated between 18 and 20 CIA sources in China. CIA counterspies focused on “a Chinese-American who had left the CIA shortly before the intelligence losses began.” That is most likely Lee. “Some investigators believed he had become disgruntled and had begun spying for China,” the Times reported. “One official said the man had access to the identities of CIA informants and fit all the indicators on a matrix used to identify espionage threats.” Lee was in court this week in New York City and was charged with unlawful retention of national defense information. If convicted, he can get up to ten years in prison. That’s pretty light for treason don’t you think? Is that all 20 lives are worth these days?
Officials familiar with the case say it is unlikely that Lee will be charged with espionage, which can carry the death penalty. It may be that the government doesn’t have the proof required for such a charge, or that it doesn’t want to air secrets in an open courtroom. That is a travesty all in itself. Officials said the number of informants lost in China rivaled losses in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the CIA and the FBI. They divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant US Attorney Neil Hammerstrom of the Eastern District of Virginia. He prosecuted the case of Pentagon official James Fondren who worked at Pacific Command. Fondren was convicted in 2009 of passing classified information to a Chinese agent. Let me tell you something, this country is just lousy with Chinese spies. A concerted effort should be made to ferret out all of them in government agencies, universities and corporations in the US. And charges for espionage should be a lot stiffer than this. It’s almost a certainty that the Chinese have hacked the CIA’s lines of communication. Perhaps they should do something about that as well. This is one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades. But it’s the ones we don’t know of or haven’t caught that worry me.