The Justice Department announced the arrest of former CIA official Jerry Chun Shing Lee on Tuesday in connection with the collapse of American spy networks within China and the exposure of numerous Chinese informants. The arrest comes after an extensive six-year investigation by the FBI, The NYT reports.
Lee was charged with unlawful retention of national defense information in federal court after being detained at Kennedy Airport in New York City on Monday. Lee has lived in Hong Kong for the majority of his post-CIA life. He left the agency in 2007, disgruntled that his career had plateaued.
The suspicion of Lee stems from the discovery of two notebooks containing classified information in his luggage during FBI searches conducted at hotels in Hawaii and Virginia in 2012. Lee was in the U.S. to move his family back from Hong Kong, but he returned to Hong Kong in 2013 after being questioned by the FBI. The FBI declined to comment as to why no arrest was made at that time.
The information in the notebooks shed some light on the cause of the collapse of American intelligence networks within China, which had baffled the CIA and FBI since 2010. The notebooks detailed meetings between CIA informants and undercover agents. They also contained the real names and phone numbers of those informants and undercover agents. According to The NYT, prosecutors said the material in the notebooks reflected the same information found in classified cable communications Lee wrote while with the agency.
In 2010, the CIA began losing informants within China at an alarming rate, comparable to the agency’s losses in the Soviet Union and Russia when Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen revealed information on intelligence operations. The Chinese government killed or jailed between 18 and 20 CIA sources within the country between 2010 and 2012, effectively halting American intelligence operations there. It was one of the worst intelligence failures of the American government in a number of years.
Lee’s arrest marks the third major arrest in a ten-month period in relation to the sharing of classified information with China. Lee joins the State Department’s Candace Marie Claiborne and ex-CIA officer Kevin Patrick Mallory on that list.
No reason was given as to why Lee returned to the U.S. last weekend, but, on Saturday, the FBI scrambled to charge him when they discovered he was returning to the country.
The CIA has declined to comment on Lee’s arrest.