Former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee pleads guilty to spying for China

The Hong Kong media identified the man on the right as former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee. He was a security official at the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi painting at the Christie's showroom in Hong Kong on Oct. 13, 2017. Three months later, Lee was arrested at JFK airport in New York. He pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court Wednesday to spying for China/Image: NPR

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, an ex-CIA officer pleaded guilty in American federal court on Wednesday on spying for China. This is the third separate espionage case in the past year associating a former U.S. intelligence officer to Beijing.

Lee entered the guilty plea to the most serious of the three charges he was facing.

When asked by Judge T.S. Ellis, Lee confessed, “I conspired to gather and send secret information to the PRC (People’s Republic of China).

However, in exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, agreed to drop two lesser charges of retaining secret information after he left the American intelligence.

The plea agreement terms for a minimum sentence of about 21 years. But Judge Ellis emphasized that this was only a recommendation and he is free to impose the sentence he sees appropriate when Lee is sentenced on August 23. The adjuration carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

He worked as an American intelligence officer in China and elsewhere from 1994 to 2007. Lee, after leaving the CIA, settled in Hong Kong and started a private business.

Prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom said Lee met with Chinese intelligence officials in 2010 and subsequently made transactions in his Hong Kong bank accounts totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next three years.

During 2010 to 2012, a dozen or more Chinese citizens secretly cooperating with the CIA were arrested and either jailed or executed by the Chinese government, according to media reports and former CIA officials.

This was a major setback to CIA operations in China, and there has been considerable speculation about whether Lee might have played a role. Reports by different sources said Lee was a leading suspect in the CIA’s hunt for a mole, while others have suggested that the Chinese may have broken into a CIA communications system, which led them to the spies.

However, Lee’s attorney, Edward MacMahon said the government’s court filings never accused Lee of actually delivering information to the Chinese and did not blame him for any deaths.

“Those were stories leaked to the media,” said MacMahon. “There’s no allegation in the indictment or the government’s statement of facts that Mr Lee had anything to do with anybody getting killed.”

The CIA has not yet made any comments on the case.

Lee becomes the third former U.S. intelligence official tied to spying for China over the past year.

Former CIA Officer Charged With Spying For China

Kevin Mallory, a former officer with the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, was convicted at a trial last year and is scheduled to be sentenced this month. Ron Hansen, a former DIA officer, pleaded guilty in March and is now serving a 15-year sentence.

Chinese espionage efforts

National security officials say these cases point to widespread Chinese espionage operations directed at U.S. targets.

They include traditional spy-vs.-spy efforts aimed at stealing U.S. government and military secrets, as well as an extensive Chinese program to pilfer high tech from private companies and universities.

“No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence-collection threat than China,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week. “They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China.”

Lee was born in Hong Kong and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He resigned from the CIA 12 years ago, reportedly frustrated that his career had stalled.

He had been the target of an FBI investigation since 2012, when he travelled from Hong Kong to the U.S., stopping in Hawaii and Virginia. FBI agents secretly searched his hotel rooms in both states and discovered Lee’s handwritten notes in two small address books that “contained true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, as well as the addresses of CIA facilities” all related to China, according to the indictment.

Lee was interviewed by the FBI at the time, but was allowed to leave the U.S. and returned to Hong Kong. He was arrested in January 2018, when he returned to the U.S. on another visit and was picked up at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

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Melanie Romaro

Melanie Romaro is a Former Geopolitical Analyst at The Kootneeti. She holds a Masters degree in Political Science & International Relations from the State University of Colorado. She can be reached at

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