The US federal court in Virginia sentenced a former CIA officer 19 years of prison on Friday for espionage conspiracy in which he received more than $840,000 from China to divulge intelligence regarding US national security and his knowledge of spycraft.
Prosecutors argued stating Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, had given vital information to Chinese intelligence officers in exchange for thousands of dollars between 2010 and 2013. They also said it is likely that Lee, who retired in 2007, has given intel to China during his entire 13-year career in the CIA as a case officer.
"Instead of embracing that responsibility and honouring his commitment to not disclose national defence information, Lee sold out his country, conspired to become a spy for a foreign government, and then repeatedly lied to investigators about his conduct," the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Zachary Terwilliger was quoted as saying in a statement.
While the prosecutors sought 20 years of prison for Lee, the defence lawyers argued for less than 10 years for the former officer citing lack of concrete proof establishing Lee carrying out actual espionage upon the United States for China.
Lack of evidence
According to the prosecutors, there is no direct evidence that proves the lumpsum cash transmitted to Lee's bank account came from Chinese intelligence. However, they have stated that Lee's defence regarding where the money came from lacked credibility considering he ran a failed tobacco business in Hong Kong.
Describing Lee's espionage as "the only logical conclusion", prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom was quoted as saying by AP that the Chinese intel "must have been getting top-drawer, high quality (information) from this defendant."
Of lies and truth
The sentence came after Lee pleaded guilty of conspiring to provide national security defence intel to aid the foreign government in May. He was suspected of espionage after an FBI search of Lee's hotel room in Hawaii in August 2012 revealed several handwritten notes from the time when he was a CIA officer before 2004 and a thumb drive.
Investigation revealed that they found names of eight CIA human sources which included those recruited and handled by Lee himself during the time he was serving in the CIA.
According to reports, following the findings, Lee had lied to the FBI after he was confronted. In Friday's hearing, prosecutor Adam Small accused Lee of meeting Chinese intelligence officers and accepting the 20 "taskings" which included details of skills and techniques used by CIA to communicate with their sources and maintain their cover.
"Everything he knew would have been highly valuable to the People's Republic of China (PRC)," Small said.
China recruiting ex-CIA agents
The case drew parallels to a similar espionage case of a former CIA officer Kevin Mallory that was sentenced by the Alexandria courthouse earlier this year. Mallory was sentenced to 20 years of prison after investigation revealed that he exposed top-grade information to China in exchange for $25,000.
Prosecutors argued that since the amount Lee received was much larger in comparison to Mallory's it is likely that Lee exposure was more severe. Defence lawyers denied the accusations saying that while the information disclosed by Mallory was classified as Top Secret, the information Lee disclosed did not exceed the classified "Secret" level.
Lee, who is a naturalised US citizen after his family immigrated to Hawaii from Hong Kong when he was 15, however, apologized for his actions and said "I take full responsibility for my conduct. " He is the third such case involving former US intelligence officers that were charged with espionage for Chinese intelligence in the past few months.
China's state-sponsored espionage program
Earlier this week, the FBI stated that it regrets not acting fast against China's intellectual property theft from America. The statement was made during a Senate testimony on the issue of Beijing recruiting US-based researchers as part of its state program 'Thousands Talents Program' with attractive pay packages.
Washington accused Beijing of espionage using the state initiative as luring experts with attractive pay packages and gaining access to advanced technological research. The issue has been raised in negotiations during the ongoing trade war. The Chinese government, however, stated that Washington has 'exaggerated' the issue for 'political reasons' and dismissed the allegations as groundless.