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China-US relations

Jerry Chun Shing Lee spy trial: China gave ex-CIA agent US$100,000 and promised to take care of him ‘for life’, US court documents say

The Hong Kong-born Lee, suspected of being at the centre of one of the largest US intelligence breaches in decades, is expected to plead not guilty 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 6:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 5:40pm

China is alleged to have given the accused spy Jerry Chun Shing Lee a cash gift of US$100,000 and promised it would “take care of him for life”, according to court documents.

The Hong Kong-born Lee, who was a CIA officer between 1994 and 2007, is also alleged to have deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars more in illicit payments from his Chinese handlers into his personal HSBC accounts in Hong Kong.

He is scheduled to be arraigned in a federal court in Virginia on Friday, where he is expected to plead not guilty to one count of conspiracy to gather or deliver national defence information to aid a foreign government, as well as two counts of unlawful retention of national defence information.

“Mr Lee has denied being a spy, and we intend to prove that he was not a spy at trial,” lawyer Edward MacMahon told the Post. “He will, of course, be pleading not guilty.”

Lee was arrested by FBI agents in January after his flight from Hong Kong landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Federal prosecutors initially accused him of having illegally kept notebooks containing sensitive information about CIA operations. But last week he was accused of a far more serious crime – conspiring to commit espionage. 

Lee, 53, was indicted on May 8 by a federal grand jury in Virginia, and is due to be arraigned at 9am on Friday in Alexandria before US District Judge TS Ellis III.

Arrested ex-CIA agent was fired from tobacco firm after suspicions he was spying for China

Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li, has been described by many as a mole at the centre of one of the most serious US intelligence breaches in decades, after 18 to 20 informants in China were killed or imprisoned. The New York Times reported last year that the first signs of trouble that led to the dismantling of the US spy network in China surfaced in 2010. The FBI and the CIA then opened a joint investigation.

According to the indictment – which did not touch on the consequences of Lee’s alleged espionage – he met two intelligence officers from China’s Ministry of State Security in Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong, in April 2010, and they gave him “a gift of $100,000 cash in exchange for his cooperation”, with the promise that “they would take care of him for life”.

In the following month, documents read, Lee began receiving a series of written instructions from the Chinese intelligence officers, some of the envelopes accompanied by gifts. 

Those officers, according to the indictment, requested at least 21 pieces of information, most asking Lee to reveal sensitive information about the CIA, including about national defence. 

The indictment noted that the Chinese intelligence and security agency, and its bureaus, were tasked with conducting clandestine human source operations, of which the US was a principal target. 

Arrest of ex-CIA agent fuels Hong Kong’s reputation as spy hotbed

Lee had worked as a CIA case officer, which meant his primary mission was to recruit spies. He had also served in various positions and locations overseas, all of which required top-secret clearance, court documents said. 

Intelligence sources said Lee had left the CIA because he felt “frustrated” and “not appreciated”.

It was later determined that the information Lee included in this document was national defence information
US court indictment

Court documents said that in May 2010, Lee made a cash deposit of HK$138,000 (US$17,468) into one of his personal HSBC accounts in Hong Kong. 

“This would be the first of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash deposits Lee made” until December 2013, the documents read. 

Prosecutors mentioned as further evidence a document created on Lee’s laptop that included information on places where the CIA would assign officers, and the location of a sensitive operation. 

“It was later determined that the information Lee included in this document was national defence information of the US that was classified at the secret level,” court papers read. 

The indictment also said that in response to a request from Chinese intelligence officers, Lee drew a sketch of the floor plan of a particular CIA facility abroad. 

According to court documents, the Chinese requests continued into at least 2011.

Lee is also accused of having made several false statements to US authorities.

Photos emerge of arrested ex-CIA agent suspended from security job at Christie’s Hong Kong

As the Post reported, Lee started working for a cigarette company in Hong Kong in 2007, the same year he left the CIA. In 2009, Japan Tobacco International terminated his contract amid suspicions that he was leaking sensitive information about its operations to Chinese authorities. 

He then set up his own company, also related to the import of cigarettes, which did not succeed. According to court papers, Lee’s business partner in Hong Kong arranged meetings and passed messages from Chinese intelligence officers to him.

From June 2013 to September 2015, the former CIA agent worked for the cosmetics company Estée Lauder.

At the time of his arrest, he was the head of security at the international auction house Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Lee has been held at the high-security Alexandria jail without bail and, if convicted, could spend the rest of his life in prison.