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Ex-CIA officer pleads guilty to conspiring to spy for China

Alexandria, Va. — A former CIA case officer faces more than two decades in prison after pleading guilty in federal court to conspiring to provide Chinese intelligence officers defense secrets in exchange for money.

"I conspired to gather and send secret level information to PRC, the government of PRC," Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday.

A plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors recommends a minimum of 21 years for one charge of conspiracy to gather and deliver defense information. Two other lesser counts were dropped as a result of the plea deal.

The charge of conspiracy could still put Lee in prison for life. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said the plea agreement does not bind the court and he "could still reach a different result."

Lee was previously suspected of being the "mole" responsible for leaking information to the Chinese that resulted in CIA contacts in China being imprisoned or killed in 2010. However, prosecutors at the hearing did not show Lee was able to get any information to the Chinese.

"The charge of conspiracy does not require that he succeeded," Ellis said.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee during a plea hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. William Hennessy

Edward MacMahon, Lee's lawyer, said there were no allegations or claims that Lee "had any responsibility of getting anyone killed."

A naturalized citizen and U.S. Army Veteran, Lee joined the CIA in 1994 and served as an overseas case officer until his resignation in 2007, prosecutors said in his indictment. He specialized in surveillance detection, recruiting informants and handling classified material. After his stint with the CIA, Lee got into the business of tobacco importation in China though he sold his stake in the company in December 2011. He would later lie about the financial state of the company in interviews with the CIA.

Prosecutors said in April 2010, Lee had dinner with Chinese intelligence officers where he was offered $100,000 for his cooperation to gather and deliver secret national information. Lee was then sent tasks by the officers in May 2010 to reveal sensitive information about the CIA, such as officer locations and phone numbers.

After moving back to the U.S. in 2012, Lee was interviewed by the CIA several times and failed to disclose the tasks given to him by the Chinese intelligence officers. A thumb drive with this document, as well as Lee's notebooks, were found by FBI agents during a search of his hotel room in Hawaii in 2012. In his plea agreement, he acknowledged to lying to the FBI in 2013 about creating a document with the locations of CIA operations and officers. 

Lee was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in January 2018 and charged with illegally retaining classified documents and information in a day planner and address book.

In a release announcing the guilty plea, Assistant Attorney General John Demers noted Lee is the third instance in less than a year in which a former U.S. intelligence officer has been been convicted of or pleaded guilty to conspiring to pass information to Chinese intelligence services.

"Every one of these cases is a tragic betrayal of country and colleagues. The National Security Division will continue to prosecute individuals like Lee who abuse their former access to classified information for financial gain while threatening the security of America," Demers said.

After the plea hearing, MacMahon, Lee's lawyer, said he wouldn't categorize Lee as a Chinese spy, claiming "he got himself in a bad spot in China but he got out."

Ellis scheduled a sentencing hearing for Lee on August 23.

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