An ex-CIA officer pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring with China to commit espionage after receiving a promise from his Chinese handlers that he would be financially set for life.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, admitted as part of a plea bargain struck Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria that he received regular “taskings” from his Chinese handlers in 2010 and 2011 after the meeting in which he was promised financial assistance.
But the statement of facts filed in court is silent as to whether he actually succeeded in delivering any intelligence to China.
Whether he delivered secrets to the Chinese “is a matter that will come out to some extent in sentencing,” said U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who set sentencing for Aug. 23.
Lee’s lawyers, Ed MacMahon and Nina Ginsberg, said that if prosecutors had evidence Lee had delivered government secrets, they would have put it forward. MacMahon rejected assertions in some news reports that Lee was a mole responsible for exposing a network of U.S. assets in China who were eventually executed.
The case against Lee “has never included any claim that Mr. Lee was responsible for getting anyone killed,” MacMahon said.
G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is prosecuting the case, said in a statement: “Lee sold out his country, conspired to become a spy for a foreign government, and then repeatedly lied to investigators about his conduct.”
Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Hong Kong, could receive life in prison. But the plea deal sets federal sentencing guidelines at roughly 18 to 27 years depending on the final calculation. Ellis is free to go above or below the guidelines if he chooses.
Lee served in the CIA from 1994 through 2007. During his time there, he served as an overseas case officer. According to the indictment, his primary duty as a case officer was to “recruit clandestine human intelligence sources.”
In court Wednesday, prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom said that when Lee left the CIA in 2007, he got a job in Hong Kong with a large tobacco company but was fired in 2009 and stopped receiving income in 2010.
It was that year when Lee met with Chinese intelligence officers who promised to take care of him for life financially if he cooperated. They also promised an immediate cash gift of $100,000, investigators said.
After that meeting, according to the indictment, Lee’s Chinese contacts delivered more than 20 envelopes between 2010 and 2011 spelling out specific tasks they wanted him to perform, most of which asked him to reveal sensitive information.
The indictment states that Lee traveled to mainland China in July 2012. The next month, when Lee was on a trip from Hong Kong to the U.S., authorities carried out a search warrant in a Honolulu hotel room and found secret information in his luggage, including the real names of CIA assets.
Court records show that Lee was under investigation for more than five years leading up to his arrest in January 2018.
Lee’s plea comes as another ex-CIA officer is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of spying for China. Kevin Mallory of Leesburg, Virginia, was convicted of providing top-secret information to Chinese handlers in exchange for $25,000. Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for Mallory, while defense lawyers are requesting a term of no longer than 10 years.