Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who worked as a case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency for more than a decade, admitted in court earlier this year that between 2010 and 2018 he communicated with agents from China’s spy service and prepared documents in response to requests from them.
In court on Friday, prosecutors went further, saying Mr. Lee had effectively received more than $800,000 in exchange for information that included the names of confidential U.S. sources and other CIA personnel.
“He sold out his country for money...now that he is caught and prosecuted, he must pay the price,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Neil Hammerstrom, Jr., adding that the funds were in unexplained cash deposits that appeared designed to avoid bank reporting requirements.
Mr. Lee’s sentence comes as two other similar cases of former U.S. intelligence officers allegedly providing agents from China’s Ministry of State Security with confidential documents in exchange for cash and other gifts have recently wrapped up, with those defendants, Ron Hansen and Kevin Mallory, receiving sentences of 10 years and 20 years respectively.
“These convictions and sentences should send a strong message to current and former security clearance holders: be aware that the Chinese government targets you,” John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said.
Mr. Lee, who has been in custody and appeared in court in a green prison jumpsuit, made brief remarks before he was sentenced. “I can only say I’m sorry,” he said, “I let my country down.”
Attorneys for Mr. Lee argued that the government had only weak, circumstantial evidence and couldn't prove who gave Mr. Lee the money—or that he provided anything to the Chinese agents.
“There are a great deal of inferences that are just that,” said one of his attorneys, Nina Ginsberg.
Prosecutors argued that the circumstantial evidence left little doubt, because Mr. Lee couldn't offer any other explanation for the cash. “Mr. Lee was never able to articulate any legitimate source of the funds,” Mr. Hammerstrom said.
Prosecutors said that they believed Mr. Lee had specifically provided Chinese agents with the names of 8 human sources and information about covert CIA facilities.
The government asked that the 55-year-old Mr. Lee serve a sentence of between 21 and 27 years in prison.
Mr. Lee’s attorney had requested a sentence of 10 years, citing his lack of criminal background and his years of service to the CIA.
According to Mr. Lee’s plea agreement, he had prepared materials for China that included information about locations to which the CIA would assign officers and a sketch of an out-of-use agency facility. Mr. Lee said he tore up the sketch and thought about giving the other document to the Chinese intelligence officers, but never provided them with either, according to a statement of facts filed in connection with his plea. He also admitted he later misled U.S. investigators about those contacts.
Senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have escalated their warnings about Chinese espionage, characterizing it as the most significant long-term strategic threat to the U.S. They say it encompasses spycraft intended to steal government secrets along with the heist of intellectual property and research from the corporate and academic worlds.
While the Trump administration has sought to emphasize the damage from Beijing’s economic espionage—an area of focus in bilateral trade talks—current and former U.S. officials say China has grown bolder and more successful in traditional spy games, including targeting less conventional recruits.
Mr. Lee was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Hawaii and became a U.S. citizen in 1985. He joined the CIA in 1994 and left in 2007.