It reads like a scene out of a Tom Clancy novel: On Monday night, federal authorities swooped into New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and arrested a former CIA officer just minutes after his plane from Hong Kong had landed.
The ex-spy, a 53-year-old Chinese-American man named Jerry Chun Shing Lee who worked for the CIA for more than a decade, has been charged with illegally holding on to extremely sensitive classified information — including the real names and phone numbers of covert CIA operatives — long after he’d left the CIA. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
It’s a pretty dramatic story on its own. But that’s just the beginning: Unnamed sources who claim familiarity with the case tell the New York Times and NBC News that Lee is suspected of being part of a massive, years-long espionage operation by the Chinese government that led to the death or imprisonment of around 20 CIA informants.
Since at least 2011, the CIA and FBI have been investigating the possibility that a mole leaked privileged information about US spies to China. If Lee is the culprit, it’s possible that his arrest ends the search for the person responsible for one of America’s worst intelligence failures in recent memory.
But that’s still not clear. The FBI has only charged Lee with “unlawful retention of national defense information,” not espionage. While that’s still a felony, it’s a much less severe charge than espionage, which can bring the death penalty. The court documents don’t say anything about Lee being part of a broader plot.
So what’s going on here?
What follows is a history of what we know about Lee, why some suspect he might have spied for China, and why we should be careful not to jump to conclusions just yet.
Lee was caught with classified info he wasn’t supposed to have
Lee, a 53-year-old naturalized American citizen who lives in Hong Kong, has a distinguished military and intelligence background, according to court documents.
He served in the US Army from 1982 to 1986, and in 1994 he joined the CIA as a case officer. A case officer handles agents and spy networks. According to the FBI affidavit, Lee was given a top-secret security clearance and had access to “sensitive compartmented information access to various sensitive programs.” In other words, Lee had access to some of the most highly classified intel the CIA had.
When he left the CIA in 2007, he was supposed to turn over all of that information — except it seems he didn’t.
In August 2012, Lee and his family decided to move back to the US from Hong Kong, where they had moved after Lee left the CIA. On their trip back to the US, they stayed in hotels in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Fairfax, Virginia.
That’s when federal investigators discovered that Lee had held on to a few pieces of highly classified information some five years after leaving the agency. Federal investigators searched Lee’s belongings at both locations and took pictures of his possessions. Among those possessions were two books that contained classified information, including the phone numbers and real names of US assets, locations for covert meetings, and notes from those meetings.
Prosecutors allege that Lee continued to meet with US government officials while he lived in northern Virginia from August 15, 2012, to June 6, 2013. But according to the court affidavit, he didn’t hand over those books of classified information in any of his meetings, nor did he mention having them in five separate interviews with FBI agents around May or June 2013.
That’s where Lee’s story ends — that is, until Monday, when he was finally arrested on charges of having unlawful access to classified information. Why the FBI waited nearly half a decade to arrest him is unclear.
Also unclear is what, if anything, he might have been doing with that classified information. Which brings us to the next mystery in the case.
The strange case of the disappearing spies
The kind of classified information that the FBI alleges Lee held on to for years after leaving the CIA — such as the true identities of CIA covert operatives — are among the intelligence community’s most closely held secrets. If a country the US spies on — say, China — finds out the identities of those people, it might choose to take action to neutralize them.
Those actions can include feeding them false information, using them to find out who they communicate with back in the US — or killing or imprisoning them. China chose the last two options.
According to the New York Times, Beijing launched a major assault on America’s intelligence operations in China between 2010 and 2012. During that time, Chinese officials murdered or jailed around 20 American assets and spies. One asset was reportedly shot in the courtyard of a Chinese government building.
That proved a major setback for the US. It takes many years to build an intelligence network in a foreign country, and in 2010 the US had the best information on China it had in years. That’s partly because the US recruited informants from inside the Chinese administration, which helped the US better understand the inner workings of a highly secretive government.
The disappearances led to a joint FBI and CIA investigation about what happened. Theories abounded, but one of them was that a mole inside the US government was giving away the identities of US sources in China. According to the Times, one of the top suspects was a former agent who oversaw the China division and lived overseas.
That’s where Lee comes in — or maybe he doesn’t.
People familiar with the case told NBC News they suspect Lee may have been involved in that plot, giving the classified information he had to the Chinese to help them unravel the US intelligence network in the country.
But the FBI’s affidavit doesn’t mention any of that. And none of the sources cited by the New York Times, NBC News, and others have been named. So those suspicions about his possible involvement in that broader Chinese operation might be nothing more than unfounded rumors.
So it’s important not to jump to conclusions just yet. That’s backfired in the past.
Remember Wen Ho Lee
On March 3, 1999, the New York Times reported that someone working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico gave nuclear secrets to China. Two days later, the Times named US nuclear scientist and Taiwanese American Wen Ho Lee as the culprit. It seems likely that reporters got his name from government officials.
That in part led the FBI to interrogate Lee. He was charged that December, but the alleged crimes had nothing to do with spying; instead, he received “59 counts of downloading restricted data to unrestricted systems.”
Lee was treated horribly during the whole ordeal. Believing he could still give away nuclear secrets to foreign countries, the court put him in solitary confinement before trial. He couldn’t even speak Mandarin when his family visited him for fear that he might tell them privileged information.
Lee eventually pleaded guilty in September 2000 to one of the counts and was released from prison. He never received an espionage charge, and there is currently no evidence that he gave away nuclear secrets to China.
In 2006, Lee received more than $1.6 million from the US government and media organizations in a court settlement for wrongly identifying him and invading his privacy.
It’s worth keeping the Wen Ho Lee case in mind when talking about Jerry Lee (no relation). Reporters and unnamed officials quickly piled on Wen Ho Lee before there was any real evidence he gave away some of America’s most precious intelligence.
When it comes to Jerry Lee, all we know is what the FBI has accused him of doing. Whether he’s found guilty of those crimes — let alone implicated in a broader plot — remains to be seen.