A former CIA officer suspected by investigators of helping China dismantle Washington’s spying operations and identify informants has been arrested, the Justice Department said.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a naturalised US citizen, was held after arriving at New York’s JFK airport on Monday. Lee worked for the CIA between 1994 and 2007. He later left for Hong Kong.
When Lee returned to the US in 2012, FBI agents searched his hotel rooms in Hawaii and Virginia and found finding two small books with secret records, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Lee, 53, was charged in a federal court in northern Virginia with the “unlawful retention of national defence information and faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, if convicted”, the Justice Department said.
He appeared in Brooklyn court on Tuesday and was being held there. He does not have a lawyer, an official said.
It was unclear why Lee decided to risk arrest by coming to the US this month, according to the report.
In the books the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents found, Lee had written down details about meetings between Central Intelligence Agency informants and undercover agents, as well as their real names and phone numbers, the court papers stated.
Prosecutors said that material in the books reflected the same information contained in classified cables that Lee had written while at the agency.
Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li, began his CIA career as a case officer, maintained a top secret clearance and signed non-disclosure agreements. He has made no public comments on the issue.
Officials expressed concern that Lee’s case and at least one other represent a troubling pattern of Chinese intelligence targeting former agency officials, an easier task than trying to recruit current CIA operatives.
In June, a former CIA officer was charged with providing classified information to China and making false statements. Prosecutors said that the former officer, Kevin Patrick Mallory, 60, of Leesburg, Virginia, had top-secret documents and incriminating messages on a communications device he brought back from Shanghai.
In March, prosecutors announced the arrest of a longtime State Department employee, Candace Marie Claiborne, accused of lying to investigators about her contacts with Chinese officials.
According to the criminal complaint against Claiborne, who pleaded not guilty, Chinese agents wired cash into her bank account and lavished her with thousands of dollars in gifts.