Spy suspect's arrest: What motivates turncoats?

The FBI has charged Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA officer, with illegally retaining documents. That may have helped Beijing brutally dismantle US espionage operations in China. 

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Va. The FBI suspects former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee of using classified information to help dismantle US espionage operations in China.

The datebook was 49 pages long; the address book 21. Both were full of secrets. The former contained operational notes and meeting locations for CIA “assets,” meaning spies, among other things. The latter had the true names and phone numbers of covert CIA employees, and the addresses of CIA facilities.

That’s what the FBI alleges in court documents, in any case. These two small books – allegedly found in a secret search of luggage in a Hawaii hotel room in August 2012 – are the crux of the case against Jerry Chun Shing Lee, the former CIA officer arrested Monday and charged with illegally retaining documents. His action may have helped Beijing dismantle US espionage operations in China.

If the allegations are true, they would answer a question that’s been haunting US counterintelligence officials: Who, if anyone, was the mole who did grave damage to the CIA’s insight into Chinese government intentions and actions, beginning around 2010?

But if the allegations are true, they also raise other questions: Why would Mr. Lee betray America? What does this mean for the sometimes cold, sometimes warm relationship between the world’s existing economic superpower, and a rising rival?

Further developments in the case may shed light on motive. As for geopolitics, the US is now aware that China has developed a full spectrum intelligence capability. But espionage is an old, and generally mutual, practice.

“Espionage is conducted in any adversarial relationship, and the US-China relationship is on a trajectory that is headed in the direction of growing strategic competition. It's not surprising that there is active espionage operations on both sides,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is unlikely, however, that this will undermine the US-China relationship.”

A disgruntled American citizen

Lee is a naturalized American citizen. Court documents say he is also known as Zhen Cheng Li. He served in the US Army from 1982 to 1986, and then joined the CIA as a case officer in 1994. Among other positions, he did serve in China.

He left the CIA in 2007. According to news reports, he was disgruntled that his career had stalled, among other things. He has been living in Hong Kong with his family, where he works as a security chief for a prominent auction house. The FBI first interviewed him during a 2012 visit back to the US, but for unexplained reasons, he was not arrested following the discovery of the two notebooks hidden in his luggage. However, when he arrived at JFK Airport in New York this week, US law enforcement arrested him.

His arrest has its roots in the disappearance of US espionage assets in China. Beginning in 2010, the elements of a high-level US spy ring began disappearing, one by one. The collapse of this penetration was a disaster for US intelligence. It was also a human disaster, in that the Chinese government killed or imprisoned from 18 to 20 sources within the space of several years.

Some FBI officials had suspected Lee for some time. His service and knowledge would have provided him access to the compromised information. The information contained in date book and address book found in his luggage was derived from this personal knowledge, according to court documents.

“Classified cables that Lee wrote when he was a case officer, which describe his interaction with assets and information he learned from those meetings, and for which he was the derivative classification authority, contain much of the information reflected in the books,” wrote the FBI in a charging document released Monday night.

Lee also fits another pattern: In the past, China has focused espionage recruitment efforts on ethnic Asian minorities. That emphasis has lessened in recent years, however, as Beijing has improved the subtlety and breadth of its human intelligence collection. China has focused on recruitment of US national students who are studying or working in China, for instance.

“Chinese intelligence services seek to recruit agents from a variety of backgrounds,” concludes a report from a congressionally-mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Lee is also a retiree, another category China has targeted in the US and elsewhere.

“As retired officials, they are not subject to further background checks or the other security measures that countries often put in place to monitor officials with sensitive access,” said Peter Mattis, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, in 2016 congressional testimony.

A primary attraction: money

Yet money – especially when combined with lingering resentment against former employers – remains the primary attraction for many turncoats. News reports say there are indications that China may have arranged Lee’s current Hong Kong position.

The lure of cold cash was documented in 2002 by a large study of all known cold war US turncoats carried out for the Pentagon’s Defense Personnel and Security Research Center.

“Americans most consistently have cited money as the dominant motive for espionage, and over time money has increased in predominance among motives,” concluded this study.

It’s possible this incident will have a negative effect on US-Chinese relations going forward. But the truth is that the relationship is now so complicated, containing so many points of contention as well as obvious areas of mutual interest, that any effect will only be marginal.

The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy taps China as a rival and possible partner. China steals hundreds of billions of dollars a year in US technological intellectual property, the NSS points out. The loss of more than 21 million US government personnel records in a hack that the US says was perpetrated by China has already alerted American counterintelligence to the kind of damage Beijing can inflict.

China is spending billions on infrastructure projects in other countries and gradually expanding its reach as it seeks to become the dominant military and economic power in Asia, supplanting the US.

“We are going to compete with them across all dimensions of power,” says Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

This Lee case may look particularly bad for the US. But the Chinese hacked US government personnel records. They are focused on stealing plans and technology related to top-tier US weapons. They have played their own influence game in US politics, as Russia has. And they are building up their own military, Mr. Blumenthal says.

The US is now slowly waking up to the facts of this competition, he says.

“We’re not quite in the game yet. If the United States really decided to use all elements of national power to push back we would be quite successful…. We just haven’t made a full commitment as a nation to compete with China in this way,” he says.

Editor's note: The quote from Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has been updated. This story was also changed to clarify the charges against Mr. Lee.

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