WASHINGTON (CN) – Years after up to 20 CIA sources were killed in China, a former officer known to have kept handwritten notes on such classified information appeared Tuesday before a federal judge.
Few details about the case are available in the complaint unsealed Tuesday in the Eastern District of Virginia, but The New York Times called Jerry Chun Shing Lee the FBI’s “prime suspect in the hunt for a traitor.”
Lee is charged with one count: unlawful retention of national defense information. The 53-year-old was arrested Monday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport, but it is unclear what brought him back to the United States from Hong Kong. Lee had been living there since 2013 when the FBI began closing in on him.
An affidavit filed with the complaint says the CIA hired Lee in 1994 but that his top-secret security clearance was terminated in 2007 when he left government service.
No details are available in the affidavit about the nature of Lee’s departure from the CIA. It describes Lee as a naturalized U.S. citizen who served in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 1986. Lee has a master’s from Hawaii Pacific University, where he also studied international business management as an undergraduate.
FBI Special Agent Kellie O’Brien notes in the affidavit that Lee’s CIA training included “methods of covert communications, surveillance detection, recruitment of assets, handling of assets, payment of assets, operational security, and documenting, handling and securing classified material.”
He served in various overseas positions and locations during the course of his tenure at the agency.
In August 2012, while the CIA was investigating a leak that caused the deaths of between 18 and 20 assets over the past two years, Lee was moving back to the United States. The New York Times notes that Lee had been living Hong Kong since 2007, working at a well-known auction house, and that the FBI had used a ruse to lure Lee in for questioning.
The affidavit says Lee was under FBI surveillance when he and his family spent four days at a hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, before completing the move to Virginia.
On Aug. 13, 2012, “a court-authorized search of Lee’s Honolulu hotel room and luggage was conducted,” O’Brien’s affidavit states.
Another search was conducted two days later when Lee and his family checked into a hotel in Fairfax, Virginia. Photographs were taken in both searches, which uncovered a datebook and an address book containing handwritten notes.
O’Brien says a CIA classification authority later determined that the books contained classified material, including the true names and phone numbers of CIA assets, as well as the addresses of covert facilities.
In at least one instance, the affidavit continues, disclosure of the top-secret information contained in Lee’s notes “could cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
O’Brien says Lee resided in the northern Virginia area until June 6, 2013, but never surrendered his books to officials with the U.S. government during this time, as required by the nondisclosure agreements he signed throughout the course of his career with the CIA.
“Nor, in communications with former CIA colleagues and other U.S. government officials, did he mention that he was in possession of the books,” the affidavit states. “Additionally, Lee was interviewed by FBI agents on five separate occasions in or about May and June 2013 and never suggested that he possessed these books.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge John Anderson unsealed the case against Lee on Jan. 16 after his arrest. Lee was presented in the Eastern District of New York on Tuesday in preparation for his transfer to Virginia.
CIA spokesman Jonathan Liu declined to comment on Lee’s indictment, as did Joshuan Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia.
If convicted, Lee faces up to 10 years in prison. The New York Times reported that Lee does not have a lawyer.