In May, The New York Times, in a feat of national security journalism that made me quite jealous of their reporters and those reporters’ sources, broke the news that the CIA and the FBI were years-deep in a counter-intelligence investigation because virtually all of the CIA’s informants and agents inside of China had been killed beginning in 2010.
The FBI suspected an insider — a spy inside the CIA. The CIA, reflexively, questioned whether their tradecraft had been compromised. The two agencies had come to a stalemate, despite, according to the Times,
The mole hunt eventually zeroed in on a former agency operative who had worked in the C.I.A.’s division overseeing China, believing he was most likely responsible for the crippling disclosures. But efforts to gather enough evidence to arrest him failed, and he is now living in another Asian country, current and former officials said.
No other details were provided, owing to the sensitivity of the investigation. Perhaps the Times knew more, but perhaps they were urged to keep more details secret because the target of the mole hunt did not know he (note, it was a he) was a suspect. A lot of folks who “had worked” in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations division that oversaw Chinese espionage operations now lived overseas. I guess, conservatively, that the Times identified a universe of about 500 or more people.
Today, without explicitly making the link, the Times lets us know why it came to be that his one former agency operative was considered to be a suspect. Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, lived in Hong Kong after retiring from the agency. In 2012, the FBI discovered notebooks full of classified information, case officer names and informant identities in his luggage. Mr. Lee had traveled to the United States. And then — nothing. The FBI did not arrest Lee at the time for unlawfully retaining classified information. Instead, it seems that they did not even tell them what they found, letting him return to Hong Kong. Why? Seems obvious. They wanted to sit on him for a while, and monitor his communications, and see if his behavior changed. The idea would be to see if he tried to get in touch with China, which might further implicate him. It’s not clear why Lee brought the notebooks with him. (The FBI does not say whether it managed to clandestinely search his Hong Kong apartment, or whether it knew to look for notebooks.)
For whatever reason, Lee decided to return to the United States on Monday, and because the violation of law the FBI had discovered when they searched his room remained chargeable, he was arrested. The affidavit filed by the FBI is conspicuous by the absence of anything other than information about the hidden notebooks. This is deliberate; if they have other evidence, it probably implicates sources or methods, or it might refer to another suspect who hasn’t yet been charged.
Equally unknown is why the Department of Justice let Lee go four years ago… and did not (according to the original Times report) develop new evidence against him at least through May of this year — and yet decided when learning about his trip to the U.S. to finally arrest him. If I had to guess, I would say that prosecutors did not want their luck to run out, or else had been frustrated that they had not been able to build a larger case.
We do not know whether Lee disclosed anything to the Chinese government. We can infer that, based on the Times reporting, but we do not know. We do not know whether Lee was an MSS spy in the CIA’s midst — or when such alleged espionage may have began, or why. We do not know whether Lee, even if it was responsible for betraying the identities of CIA informants, is responsible for betraying all of them.