Chinese spies promised to take care of a former CIA officer for life if he handed over information on clandestine activities in their country, federal prosecutors say.
When he was arrested in January, Lee was charged only with the latter crime, although many in government believe him to be a mole who devastated the agency’s sources in China.
Some of those human sources were killed. But court papers do not link Lee to those deaths.
Prosecutors say they can prove that Lee communicated repeatedly with Chinese spies and prepared documents at their request. At the same time, authorities say, he was receiving unusual amounts of cash.
Judge T.S. Ellis III set a trial for February. In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Hammerstrom said the classified information in this case is “more involved and complex” than in the trial of Kevin Mallory, another former CIA officer accused of spying for China. Mallory is set to go on trial later this month.
Ed MacMahon, who is defending Lee, added that he may have to take depositions overseas.
“It’s going to be complicated,” he said.
Lee was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Hawaii and is a U.S. citizen who served in the Army for five years. He joined the CIA in 1994, according to court records, and left in 2007 as a case officer with a top-secret security clearance.
After his departure from the CIA, Lee worked at a Japanese tobacco company in Hong Kong but was fired two years later, prosecutors said. He then started his own company to import cigarettes to China, but the business foundered, and by the end of 2011 he had sold his stake in the company.
It was in 2010, when Lee’s firm was struggling, that prosecutors say the former spy was approached by two Chinese intelligence operatives in Shenzhen.
Chinese intelligence officials promised to take care of Lee for life, according to his indictment, starting with a gift of $100,000.
Lee met with a CIA officer soon after and reported the approach — but not the financial offer.
Soon, prosecutors allege, Lee began getting assignments from the Chinese spies through a business associate, asking for sensitive CIA and national defense information. Some of the envelopes contained gifts, according to the indictment.
There is no claim in the indictment that Lee was caught handing over information in return. Prosecutors instead point to his behavior and interactions as what they say is evidence of a conspiracy.
Emails show ongoing contact between Lee and his “friends in China” through at least 2011, according to the court filings.
Meanwhile, Lee began depositing what ultimately grew to hundreds of thousands of dollars into his bank account.
A former CIA employee told the FBI that in 2013 she was approached by Chinese intelligence officials who asked about places she had worked and assets she had handled — information Lee had access to and that the Chinese had asked about.
FBI agents say they also recovered a thumb drive that included a document that answered some of the Chinese spies’ questions.
That thumb drive was found when the FBI lured Lee back to the United States in 2012 with a fake offer for a new job at the CIA. His luggage was searched at two different hotels, and, along with the drive, agents said in filings that they found notebooks in which he had written down top-secret information as well as a note with a phone number and email address given to him by the Chinese operatives.
In 2013, an email was sent from that account, asking about “Christina’s grade book.”
“We have not seen her recent grade book for a few months, maybe little girl always like changing her mind,” it read.
In interviews for the new job, Lee lied and said he had not been to China in about two years, prosecutors say, and offered false bank statements making his company appear more profitable than it was.