China-US relations

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

Former police superintendent says Jerry Chun Shing Lee kept low profile while living in city

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 11:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 January, 2018, 5:55pm

Photos of a former CIA agent currently in US custody for suspected espionage have emerged showing a rugged “strongly built” man who had worked at auction house Christie’s in Hong Kong for nearly two years.

Hong Kong resident and US citizen Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who was arrested this week, had been working with the British auction house for the last 20 months and was “focused on physical security for the firm’s facilities and staff”, according to the firm. Christie’s has suspended Lee.

He had kept a low profile while in Hong Kong. Lee was known to few people in the city and had virtually no digital footprint. However, a Hong Kong website named “The Value” posted photographs of him online. The images showed him standing in a salesroom wearing a blue suit and an earpiece with the company’s name in the background.

The Post independently verified the identity of the man in the photos. A security source confirmed it was Lee. He was described on the website as “strongly built”, “nice” and someone who would respond politely even when dealing with awkward people.

A Christie’s spokesman, meanwhile, told the Post: “We can confirm we have suspended a Hong Kong employee pending a criminal investigation. His role was not linked to data security or IT functions at the company. The allegations significantly predate his employment with the company.”

The spokesman said Christie’s had “no involvement in this matter” and declined to comment further.

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“Apparently, he operated here in Hong Kong very discreetly and not many people knew him,” said former police superintendent Clement Lai Ka-chi, who had a brief encounter with Lee in the past.

“I am not surprised,” was his comment on suspicions that Lee might have leaked sensitive information to Beijing.

The Post could not find any direct reference on the internet to the man also known as Zhen Cheng Li until his arrest on Monday night at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York after flying in from Hong Kong. The absence of a digital footprint suggested he might have used a different name online or avoided any internet presence.

He was charged with unlawful retention of national defence information, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

While there are suspicions that Lee might have played a key role in Beijing’s dismantling of the American spy network in China, he is not facing any charges related to such allegations.

According to The New York Times, the CIA began losing operatives in China in 2010, with 18 to 20 of them killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government. That was a major setback for the agency and was considered one the US government’s most serious intelligence failures in its recent history, the newspaper reported.

A security source, who asked not to be identified, told the Post: “Hong Kong is notoriously known for being an international centre for undercover agents from several countries.”

He noted that a busy and prosperous Hong Kong had a loose immigration policy and allowed great flexibility to companies doing business in the city, making it a “safe house for these sort of agents”.

Hong Kong is notoriously known for being an international centre for undercover agents from several countries

Lee, who was said to have left the CIA in 2007, was arrested following an FBI inquiry that started in 2012. He was found to be holding notebooks with names of undercover US agents and other classified information.

According to court documents, Lee – a naturalised American citizen currently living in Hong Kong – joined the American spy agency as a case officer in 1994. He was then “trained in methods of covert communications, surveillance detection, recruitment of assets, operational security” and “documenting, handling and securing classified material.”

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He “served in various overseas positions and locations, which all required a top-secret clearance”, and had also “signed several non-disclosure agreements”.

According to the documents, he and his family left Hong Kong in August 2012 to live in northern Virginia. Upon arriving there, Lee and his family stayed in hotels in Hawaii and Virginia, where FBI agents investigating him found sensitive materials relating to national defence.

Two small books contained handwritten notes with classified information, including real names and phone numbers of CIA assets and covert employees, operational notes from asset meetings, and locations of meetings and covert facilities.

The New York Times reported that some investigators believed Lee had left the CIA as a disgruntled man after his career plateaued, and begun spying for China.

Lee, whose motive for travel this month to the US is unknown, made his initial appearance on Tuesday afternoon in the Eastern District of New York. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if convicted of unlawful retention of national defence information.

Additional reporting by Ernest Kao