Until Jan. 16, unless you were part of the counterintelligence China mole-hunt team at the CIA and FBI, you probably had never heard of a former CIA case officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee. A 13-year veteran of the CIA (1994-2007), Lee stands accused of “unlawful retention of national defense information.” To the uninformed, it may seem like a milquetoast charge, but not really. It was sufficient for the FBI to arrest Lee upon his arrival at JFK Airport in New York Jan. 16. Now that he is in custody, they can add more charges, when the Department of Justice (DoJ) crafts the indictment of Lee.
How Bad Is It?
As a former CIA case officer with deep counterintelligence experience myself, the information described in the DoJ criminal complaint affidavit is beyond damning. With this arrest, the FBI has neutralized an individual who broke trust with the country of citizenship, the United States.
Was Lee Seeded by China?
There will be speculation that Lee was seeded into the United States to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, serve in the military and then join the intelligence community, capitalizing on his linguistic capabilities. Currently, however, there is no information to support such a supposition.
Lee Possibly Compromised Identities
Reading this affidavit closely, we can conclude Lee shared CIA operational secrets with the Chinese. These secrets included not only the identities, covers and covert facilities used by his CIA colleagues, but also the identifying information of covert human sources with whom he met or was part of the extended support team (backup case officer, for example). This information, culled during his operational years—which, according to the New York Times, included at least one tour in China—was found in two notebooks the FBI accessed in surreptitious entries to his hotel room in Hawaii and in Virginia during an FBI-orchestrated trip to the United States in 2012.
Why Wasn’t Lee Arrested Earlier?
Lee was interviewed five times during May and June 2013 by the FBI while he was residing in northern Virginia. He left the United States in June 2013 and returned to Hong Kong, and didn’t return until this month, when he was arrested at JFK.
This begs the question: Why was Lee allowed to leave the United States in 2013?
It is a fair question. The criminal complaint clearly states that the information contained in Lee’s books was “reviewed by a CIA classification authority who determined that the books contained classified information.” The complaint does not reveal when this determination was made, and it may not have been made until after Lee’s 2013 departure.
Until the content of the notebooks is made public, we are left to speculate whether the information was written in a nicely presented plain-text chronology or whether the professional ex-CIA case officer used a cipher or other complex note-taking system, which required time and effort by the FBI and others to make heads or tails of the notes. What we do know is that the “notes book” contained 49 pages of notes and that the “address book” contained 21 pages of identifying information.
Indeed, paragraph 22 of the affidavit said Lee’s notes were found to contain what is known in CIA vernacular as “contact reports,” which describe the time, place, interaction, tasking, etc. between case officer and a clandestine source (here is an example of a declassified 1960 operational memorandum/contact report from CIA’s FOIA library that provides the depth of detail).
Is Lee the mole responsible for the death and imprisonment of Chinese clandestine sources who were providing secret information to the CIA?
No charges of espionage have been made against Lee, but they may appear in the forthcoming indictment of Lee. If so, then we may learn whether Lee is the source of the compromise of the many sources within China, which began in 2010 and continued for two years. While Lee may not have been able to identify the individuals recruited by the CIA to provide confidential information post-2007, he certainly could provide sufficient information to give the Chinese counterintelligence entities a leg-up to identify covert U.S. intelligence officers and subject them to discrete or nondetectable surveillance.
For now, we await Lee’s indictment, but it certainly appears Lee is to China what Ames/Hanssen/Howard were to Russia in compromising U.S. clandestine CIA sources within the Chinese government.