A former CIA case officer who spied for China was sentenced to 19 years in prison on Friday in a case U.S. officials say involved the loss of more than two dozen recruited CIA agents in China.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 55, was sentenced to the prison term Friday by federal Judge T.S. Ellis III during a hearing in an Eastern District of Virginia courtroom.
G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the sentence should serve as a warning to other would be spies.
“Lee sold out his country, conspired to become a spy for a foreign government, and then repeatedly lied to investigators about his conduct,” Mr. Terwilliger said in a statement. “This prosecution and sentence should serve as a clear warning to others who are contemplating selling out to the highest bidder and capitalizing on their position of trust.”
Lee, also known by his Chinese name as Zen Cheng Li, was a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Hong Kong who joined the CIA in 1994 and served undercover in China and other parts of Asia.
He returned to Hong Kong after retiring from the agency in 2007 and worked for a cigarette importing company.
Lee was recruited by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) spy service during a 2010 visit to Shenzhen, China with the help of a co-worker and former Hong Kong police officer, according to court papers in the case.
In August 2012 FBI agents conducted a search of Lee’s hotel room in Hawaii as he traveled to the United States. They discovered Lee was carrying two notebooks containing “secret” and “top secret” information, including the names of recruited CIA agents in China.
The investigation of Lee was part of a major interagency counterintelligence investigation launched after the CIA lost as many as 30 recruited CIA agents in China. The agents began being rolled up after Lee’s 2010 meeting in Shenzhen.
U.S. counterintelligence officials believe the agents, who were imprisoned and some executed by Chinese authorities, were compromised through a penetration agent, or mole, within the CIA, or as a result of a compromised agent communications system.
Prosecutors did not link Lee to the loss of the agents in court papers or statements.
Lee unsuccessfully attempted to rejoin the CIA and was paid an estimated $840,000 by the MSS in exchange for CIA secrets, according to prosecutors.
Lee pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage in April and admitted at that time that he supplied documents and information to the MSS from April 2010 until Jan. 15, 2018, when he was arrested.
The case is considered one of the most damaging espionage cases related to China.
“Lee betrayed his own country for greed and put his former colleagues at risk,” said Timothy R. Slater, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office. “The seriousness of his betrayal and crime is demonstrated by today’s sentencing.”
“In just over a year, we have convicted three Americans for committing espionage offenses on behalf of the Chinese government,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “Each has now received a sentence of at least a decade.”
In May, former CIA officer Kevin Mallory was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying for China, and in September former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Ron Rockwell Hansen received a 10-year sentence for espionage-related charges.
Mark Kelton, former deputy CIA director for counterintelligence, said China is engaged in an aggressive spying campaign targeting the United States.
“The PRC has pursued a strategy of ‘blended’ intelligence attacks on the U.S.,” Mr. Kelton said in an interview.
“That effort incorporates both traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) and cyber elements. And it has inflicted damage on our country that goes beyond the manifestly great harm done by Chinese economic espionage. As indicated in the charging documents of some of those Americans arrested for betraying our country, their provision of classified information to the Beijing has resulted in lives lost among Chinese those who worked with us in opposition to the evil, oppressive PRC regime. They were, and are, heroes in the fight for freedom.”