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Opinion The saga of the Chinese mole reads like a spy thriller

An undated photo of Jerry Chun Shing Lee, provided by the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office. (AP)

Behind last week’s admission by a former CIA officer that he plotted to spy for China lies an astonishing tale of Beijing’s espionage against America — and the vindication of other CIA officers who were falsely suspected of being the Chinese mole.

This saga has a classic thriller plot, in which a suspect must find the real villain to clear his name. Unfortunately, most of the details of the true-life version remain secret, under seal at the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria or in the vaults of the CIA. But knowledgeable sources sketched parts of the story that aren’t classified.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who was a CIA case officer from 1994 to 2007, pleaded guilty May 1 to conspiring with Chinese intelligence agents to provide secret information. U.S. officials won’t discuss the precise damage Lee did, but intelligence experts believe he was part of an aggressive Chinese spy operation that led to the exposure, arrest and execution of at least 20 CIA sources inside China. For an intelligence service such as the CIA, that’s as bad as it gets.

The resolution of the Lee case comes at a time when the Trump administration is threatening to escalate its trade war against Beijing to force China to stop stealing commercial secrets and allow fairer trade. The negotiations will hit a deadline Friday, when the administration has threatened to raise tariffs to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese products.

Trump’s hard-nosed and sometimes erratic bargaining tactics have roiled financial markets this week. But as the Lee case shows, the Chinese are hardly innocent victims. They have been burrowing deep into the CIA to steal its most precious secrets, as well as pilfering corporate data wherever they can.

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Lee pleaded guilty to only one count of conspiracy, and prosecutors said his plea agreement and an accompanying statement of evidence were “not intended to be a full enumeration of all of the facts surrounding the defendant’s case.” Asked if Lee had agreed to cooperate with the CIA in sharing additional details, his attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., responded: “There is nothing in the plea agreement that deals with his cooperating.”

The hunt for a Chinese mole began after the CIA started losing its key sources in China in 2010. Lee, who first met with Chinese intelligence officers in April 2010, according to prosecutors, soon came under suspicion. Another suspect was a former senior case officer who had served in China when the blown network of spies was recruited.

The senior case officer was eventually cleared, thanks to Chinese tradecraft mistakes that revealed their contact with Lee, a source said. The bungling came in Thailand in 2013, when Chinese spies made a sudden recruitment pitch to a former CIA operative who had worked with the senior case officer. She figured that someone had given the Chinese operative her name and told him it must have been Lee.

Her Chinese would-be recruiter then foolishly blurted out: “No, I’m not handling Jerry. It’s another team,” according to a knowledgeable source.

The former operative and her senior colleague promptly reported the conversation to the FBI, which added the Thailand evidence to its Lee file. In 2012, the FBI had copied two notebooks and a flash drive that Lee brought with him to Hawaii, according to prosecutors. That evidence helped lead to Lee’s conviction last week.

If Lee hadn’t made his plea agreement, prosecutors were ready to present evidence about the secret meeting in Thailand, the bungled pitch and the Chinese admission of their relationship with Lee, a source said.

The damage from this case still makes the intelligence community wince. “They wiped us out in China. All the networks we had were gone,” one former official said. Officials speculate that the Chinese may have used their contact with Lee to unravel other communications and tradecraft secrets. “It was a double whammy: human sources and technical sources,” the former official said.

The Chinese mole case has been a subject of CIA corridor gossip, and occasional press stories, for several years. The CIA won’t comment.

MacMahon protests: “If someone wants to accuse my client of getting people killed, they should attach their names to that charge. It’s not even part of this case.”

Here’s a last Chinese riddle. Experts say that in the Thailand meeting, the Chinese operative asked the former CIA officer about cases that Lee shouldn’t have known about. Which leads to an eerie question: Was there another Chinese mole, buried even deeper?

Spy fact can be much scarier than spy fiction.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

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