A former CIA officer who was long under investigation as a possible mole for the Chinese government is denying any wrongdoing, and his attorney pronounced him “loyal” to the United States.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, made his first appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday afternoon on a charge of retaining classified information.
“Mr. Lee is not a Chinese spy,” his defense attorney, Edward MacMahon, said outside court Tuesday following the hearing. “He’s a loyal American who served his country in the military and the CIA.”
Lee is charged with a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Years ago, according to court documents, FBI agents found in his possession two notebooks filled with handwritten classified information about undercover CIA employees, their sources and the places they met.
But many intelligence officials say Lee is responsible for far greater crimes. In late 2011, the FBI learned that Chinese officials had apparently uncovered the identities of a number of people spying inside the country for the United States. Those spies, officials were told, were either forced to work for China or killed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Hammerstrom said in court Tuesday that Lee is both a flight risk and a danger.
“He is a permanent resident of Hong Kong,” Hammerstrom said. “He has no fixed address in the United States.”
Lee, Hammerstrom said, would be “a danger to the community if released,” for reasons the prosecutor said would be explained at a future court appearance.
MacMahon countered that assessment, saying in court that his client “is not a flight risk or a danger to anybody.”
But MacMahon said he had not located anyone in the area who might be able to pay the cost of bond for his client. He also asked for a hearing on probable cause to be delayed because of the classified information involved.
That hearing will be held on March 19. Until then, Lee will continue to be held in Alexandria’s jail.
Lee was lured back to the United States in 2012 with a job offer so his luggage could be searched, officials have said. That is when the notebooks were found, and after that search he was repeatedly interviewed by the FBI. But Lee was not arrested then, and he eventually left for Hong Kong, where he worked for a Japanese tobacco company and the auction firm Christie’s.
When he flew to New York on a work trip in January, Lee was arrested at the airport. At an appearance shortly after the arrest in New York, a judge determined that Lee qualified for a court-appointed attorney. However, he has retained MacMahon privately.
Officials say there was and still is uncertainty about Lee’s involvement in the Chinese government’s machinations. What evidence exists may never see the light of day if intelligence officials decide the protection of CIA sources and methods is more important than Lee’s prosecution.
MacMahon noted that no named official had called Lee a spy.
“People are very good at making anonymous claims in this city that they can’t back up,” he told reporters.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Ed O’Callaghan said in a White House press briefing last month that the case represented a “very important arrest,” but he went no further.