In the last several years American intelligence has seen its network collapse in the People’s Republic of China- sources disappear, personnel files are stolen, informants and moles get sniffed out and killed. The CIA has long suspected an internal traitor ala Soviet spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and indeed, the deaths of dozens of CIA informants have been likened to the brutal purges the Soviets committed in response to Hanssen and Ames’ info. On January 15, authorities announced that they finally got their man- one Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, former CIA officer and naturalized U.S. citizen.
Mr. Lee, a resident of Hong Kong and employee of a high-end auction house, had long been the top suspect of counterintelligence investigators. As former chief of the China desk he would have had full access to information on all CIA activities in the PRC, and furthermore he had quit the CIA in 2007 due to disgruntlement over a stalled career, both red flags. However, Mark Kelton, former chief of CIA counterintelligence, refused to entertain the idea of a mole without “ironclad” proof of wrongdoing- as he was friends with a man who had been wrongly accused of Hanssen’s crimes and told others he did not wish to make the same mistake. Mr. Lee was arrested over an incident in 2012 where FBI agents searched his family’s hotel room during a trip to Virginia and discovered a set of small black notebooks filled with the real names and phone numbers of CIA operatives and Chinese informants. The FBI declined to comment on why he was not arrested until five years after the incident.
Mr. Lee has not yet been charged with espionage, a capital crime, and has instead been charged with unlawful retention of national defense information, a crime that is punishable by up to ten years in prison. Unfortunately, Mr. Lee joins several other Chinese-American immigrants who succumbed to financial or ideological temptations to spy for China (including nuclear weapons engineers, drug researchers, and a member of the FBI) and so far he shares their light sentencing as well (several had charges dropped without explanation and many received sentences of less than five years). Perhaps the devastating and costly collapse of decades-long efforts in China will persuade security officials to take a firmer hand with future turncoats- but given the way that Mr. Lee is being treated after being caught basically red-handed, don’t bet on any changes anytime soon.