The New York Times reported in a blockbuster story on Wednesday that the FBI has detained Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA officer, on suspicion of disclosing the identities of 18 to 20 CIA intelligence sources in China.
The leaks reportedly led to the executions of some of the CIA’s most valuable assets by the Chinese government. It’s also being characterized as one of the most damaging counterintelligence losses in agency history.
“More than a dozen CIA informants were killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government,” the Times said. One individual was reportedly shot in public outside the government building where he worked as a warning to others.
Military website Defense One noted that Lee was a “case officer” whose job was helping to recruit foreign spies to disclose secrets to the US. “He was supposed to create moles, not become one,” Amy Zegart, a co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, noted in an analysis on the website.
Beijing is also suspected of gaining access to highly classified details about US intelligence assets through electronic means, a mole, or both.
US intelligence officials are still divided on how China got its hands on such valuable intelligence. “News of Lee’s arrest suggests that a mole was involved but certainly does not rule out other possibilities or people,” Defense One said.
According to the Times, Lee served in the US Army from 1982 to 1986 and joined the CIA in 1994 as a case officer. Ex-agency officials said that Lee also served in China during his career.
“Those who knew him said he left the agency disgruntled after his career plateaued,” the Times reported.
The caper has brought to mind the cases of CIA counter intelligence officer Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. Both men divulged hugely damaging details on US intelligence to Moscow in return for cash for many years.
However, the accused in some big espionage cases were later cleared. Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American scientist who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was charged in 1999 on charges of stealing US nuclear secrets for China. The US was unable to prove its initial accusations, and Lee ultimately pled guilty to one count of improper handling of restricted data.