Government Waited More than 5 Years to Arrest a Chinese Spy – Why?

Intelligence

News broke late Tuesday that the FBI had arrested a former CIA case officer, Jerry Chung Shin Lee, who according to the FBI’s affidavit is also known as Zhen Cheng Li, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Lee is charged with unlawful retention of national defense information, and is accused of retaining two notebooks with critical classified information such as the identities of CIA agents in China.

(To clarify, in CIA parlance, an “agent” is not an employee of the agency, but a local asset, recruited and managed by a case officer, who provides information to which the agent has access; the FBI, on the other hand, calls its investigators “Special Agents.” So an “FBI agent” is a Federal employee but a “CIA agent” is not.)

a suspected mole years ago

According to the affidavit, Lee, 53, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who joined the CIA in 1994 after serving in the Army from 1982-1986 and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hawaii Pacific University. He left the CIA in 2007. For at least some of the time since then, Lee was living and working in Hong Kong.

Sources told the New York Times that Lee is suspected of helping the Chinese government identify and arrest, perhaps even kill, these agents over the course of several years. Last year, the Times reported that between 2010 and 2012, the Chinese  government killed or imprisoned “more than a dozen sources.” It now appears they did so based on information Lee provided.

The Times article alleges that Lee “was at the center of a mole hunt” to discover how the Chinese were able to identify so many agents inside their government. The discoveries were said to have crippled the agency’s human intelligence capabilities; CIA sources said last year that the damage was as bad as that from the betrayals of CIA officer Aldrich Ames (convicted in 1994, the same year Lee joined Langley) and FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen (who pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage in 2001).

Unanswered questions on the timing

Lee and his family moved back to Virginia in 2012, staying in hotels in Hawaii and Virginia. In both locations, the FBI says, agents searched his hotel room and his luggage, photographing the contents of two notebooks. Those notebooks contained classified information, including the “true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, as well as the addresses of CIA facilities.”

While the affidavit does not specify how long Lee lived in Virginia, he appears to have returned to Hong Kong at some point, since he was arrested as he arrived at JFK Monday evening. It is also clear that the FBI knew Lee was on his way, since the affidavit is dated Saturday, January 13. But his arrest raises more questions than it answers.

The Washington Post asked the right question, but only in passing: why, when the FBI had evidence in 2012 that Lee possessed, and was carrying around, the information that more than likely led to the deaths of its assets in China, was he only arrested yesterday?

The Chinese purge seems to have ended around the time Lee and his family returned to the U.S., and Lee was enough of a suspect that he was picked-up and surveilled as soon as he returned. Did the CIA and FBI hope he would continue his contacts with his Chinese handlers? After a certain period with no further loss of assets, when is it okay to make an arrest?

Because Lee almost slipped the dragnet. Had he not returned the U.S. Monday evening, one wonders when he would have been caught. And if he was allowed to remain free so the FBI could build a more solid case, why is he charged only with possessing his old notebooks? One would hope that after more than five years, there would be more evidence of his complicity.

Perhaps the FBI has as much evidence of his treachery as they’re going to get, and thus decided to move based only on the one charge. Whatever the reasons, the intelligence community is going to have to be more forthcoming with this case in the next few days.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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