WASHINGTON (Agencies) – A former Central Intelligence Agency officer was arrested at a US airport on Monday night in connection with charges that he illegally retained highly classified information, the US justice department said on Tuesday.
The case takes place amid concern in the US intelligence community that the Chinese government has been able to cripple their operations in that country.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a US citizen who now lives in Hong Kong, used to maintain a top secret clearance and began working for the CIA in 1994.
The justice department said that in 2012, FBI agents searched his hotel rooms during trips to Virginia and Hawaii. They discovered he had two small books containing handwritten information.
“Agents found two small books containing handwritten notes that contained classified information, including but not limited to, true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, operational notes from asset meetings, operational meeting locations and locations of covert facilities,” the justice department said.
He was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport.
Mr Lee was charged with unlawful retention of national defence information, a charge that can bring up to 10 years in prison.
The case is being prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. But Mr Lee made his first court appearance on Tuesday before a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn. The judge ordered Mr Lee held without bail.
A federal public defender who represented Mr Lee at Tuesday’s hearing declined to comment.
According to an affidavit filed by an FBI agent, Mr Lee, 53, served in the US Army from 1982 through 1986 and worked for the CIA from 1994 through 2007. The FBI agent wrote that Mr Lee and his family left Hong Kong in August 2012 to travel to northern Virginia. Along the way, they stayed in hotels where the FBI found the books.
The small books were discovered inside Mr Lee’s luggage, sealed in a small clear plastic travel pack.
The handwritten information inside ranged in terms of classification, but the agent said at least one page contained top secret information, “the disclosure of which could cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States”.
The agent also noted that classified cables Mr Lee wrote while he was a case officer describing his interactions with CIA assets were reflected in the two books.
Mr Lee was interviewed by the FBI five times in 2013 and never disclosed he had the books. He also met with former CIA colleagues around that time without returning the materials to the government,the justice department said.
The New York Times reported last year that starting in 2010, to the end of 2012, the Chinese killed “at least a dozen” sources the CIA had inside China and imprisoned six or more others. A hunt for a “mole” in the agency led to one person, a “former operative” now living elsewhere in Asia, the Times said. But there was not enough information to arrest him. Others in the agency blamed sloppy work and not a mole, the Times added.
Asked about the case in Beijing yesterday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “I’m not aware of the information you’ve mentioned.”