Former CIA agent Jerry Lee

Jerry Chun Shing Lee spy trial: ex-CIA officer pleads not guilty, will wait a year before trial in US

Hong Kong-born Lee, suspected of being at the centre of one of the largest US intelligence breaches in decades, appears in a Virginia court

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 11:14pm

A former CIA officer and Hong Kong resident accused of passing top secret information to Chinese intelligence officers in exchange for money will have to wait a year before going on trial in the United States.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, an American citizen who worked for the CIA from 1994 to 2007, pleaded not guilty on Friday to one charge of conspiracy to commit espionage and two of illegally retaining classified information.

Lee, 53, appeared for arraignment in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, “unshackled in a green jumpsuit and glasses”, according to CNN. US District Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III set his trial date for February 12, 2019.

His lawyer, Edward MacMahon, had previously told the Post: “Mr Lee has denied being a spy, and we intend to prove he was not a spy at trial.”

Many in the American government believe Lee – also known as Zhen Cheng Li – was a mole who helped China dismantle the US spy network in the Asian country. According to The New York Times, 18 to 20 informants were killed or imprisoned in China, with the first signs of trouble emerging in 2010.

The indictment, however, does not establish a direct connection between Lee and what has been labelled one of the worst US intelligence breaches in decades.

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

When Lee was arrested in January after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, he had been charged only with unlawfully holding classified information. But earlier this month he was also accused of conspiring to commit espionage, a far more severe offence that might land him in jail for the rest of his life.

Prosecutors say Lee maintained contact with Chinese spies and gave them information in exchange for cash after he left the CIA, where he had signed several confidentiality agreements.

According to the indictment, two intelligence officers from China’s Ministry of State Security met Lee in Shenzhen, a city neighbouring Hong Kong, in April 2010, and promised “they would take care of him for life”. On that same occasion it was alleged the former CIA officer received “a gift of US$100,000 cash in exchange for his cooperation”.

Hongkonger Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA agent, is charged with spying for China

The Chinese officers then made at least 21 requests for information – most of them related to the CIA and US national defence. Lee received such assignments at least until 2011, court documents said.

Prosecutors say Lee made suspicious deposits of hundreds of thousands of dollars into his HSBC personal accounts in Hong Kong. They mention as evidence emails, a document created on Lee’s laptop, a thumb drive and two notebooks containing top-secret information that FBI agents found among the former CIA officer’s belongings in 2012.

Lee is also accused of having previously lied to US authorities.

In court on Friday, assistant US Attorney Neil Hammerstrom said the classified information in this case was “more involved and complex” than in the trial of Kevin Mallory, another former CIA officer accused of spying for China, The Washington Post reported.

Mallory, who is suspected of selling classified information to Chinese intelligence officials, is expected to go on trial later this month.

Lee’s lawyer MacMahon told the court he may have to take depositions overseas, according to the newspaper.

“It’s going to be complicated,” he said.

After leaving the CIA, Lee joined Japan Tobacco International in Hong Kong, but he was fired amid suspicions he had given information to Chinese authorities about the company’s operations. At the time of his arrest, Lee was head of security for the international auction house Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Although he was born in Hong Kong, Lee grew up in Hawaii and served in the US army before earning a master’s degree and joining the CIA.