ALEXANDRIA, Va.- In a federal courthouse based out of Alexandria, Virginia earlier this week, a former CIA case agent was sentenced to spend 19 years in prison for being engaged in an espionage conspiracy with China.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 55, was sentenced in federal court after having entered in a plea of guilty earlier this year.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage, but both prosecutors and defense lawyers disagreed about the extent of how egregious the crimes committed were, with prosecutors having geared more towards what could have had catastrophic outcomes and the defense claiming that there was no tangible harm done at all.
Prosecutors involved in the case had stated that Chinese intelligence officers gave Lee more than $840,000.
Per the prosecution’s perspective, this exchange prompted Lee to give Chinese intelligence all the information he had acquired from a 13-year career as a CIA case officer. When the guilty plea came to the table earlier in the year, the prosecution had sought a prison term of more than 20 years.
The perspective of the defense couldn’t have been further from what the prosecution had painted, with the defense lawyers saying the government had never proved that the money originated from China or that Lee ever carried out any plans to deliver government secrets.
The lawyers on Lee’s behalf were aiming for a prison sentence of 10 years during the hearings, however the handed down sentence was significantly longer than they had hoped or anticipated for.
Lee’s lawyers argued that their client’s conduct wasn’t anywhere near as severe as the government described when presenting their interpretation of the evidence against Lee.
The lawyers noted that Lee admitted, as part of his plea bargain, that he agreed to engage in an espionage conspiracy with China, but never admitted that he actually divulged any secrets. Defense lawyer Nina Ginsberg summed up the prosecution as alarmists, saying:
“What the government is describing is their worst possible nightmare.”
Prosecutors did acknowledge they had no concrete evidence to prove what was transmitted in terms of any sensitive information, nor did they have any proof that the $840,000 in cash that Lee deposited into his bank account over a three-year period came from China.
Still, prosecutors said that the lack of a good explanation regarding Lee’s multiple deposits into his bank to the sum of nearly a million dollars oozed of something having been exchanged between the parties.
Lee at one point ran a tobacco business in Hong Kong, but it was essentially a failure, and couldn’t be seen as a means of having attained that much money, according to prosecutors. Neil Hammerstorm from the prosecution delivered his thoughts why said money was received, stating:
“The only logical conclusion must have been getting top-drawer, high quality (information) from this defendant.”
Prosecutor Adam Small said the government believes Lee turned over information that was found in a notebook and a thumb drive that were found to be in his possession during the course of the initial investigation.
The contents of the book and thumb drive included the names of eight CIA clandestine human sources, all of which were people that Lee himself recruited and handled in his years as a CIA case agent from 1994 to 2007.
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Small continued with his perspective of how things played out, saying that the Chinese intelligence officers who met with Lee also gave him more than 20 “taskings” in which they sought details of CIA spycraft, like how they communicate with sources and maintain their cover.
Small described just how worthwhile someone like Lee would be to China:
“Everything he knew would have been highly valuable to the PRC.”
Defense attorney Ginsberg, pointed out that there was no indication that any of the sources who were identified in Lee’s notebook were harmed or compromised in any way. As attorney Ginsburg put it:
“I dare to say the government would certainly know if their agents had been exposed.”
Small from the prosecution brushed off the mentioning of no harm done, explaining that the risk of harm from Lee’s conduct is grave, even if no actual harm occurred, while conveniently pointing out:
“Whether something has or has not occurred is in some ways irrelevant.”
The biggest clue to the depth of Lee’s betrayal, prosecutors said, is the amount of money they say he received.
The $840,000 trumps the amounts that other spies have received in order to gain information from them. Prosecutors also pointed to the recent case of Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for disclosing secrets to China in exchange for a mere $25,000.
At the center of all the debate between the juxtaposed attorneys and their interpretation of how much damage was done, there was the defendant Lee.
While a simple “sorry” can’t possibly rectify the potential risk he may have put others in, he still took ownership for what he had done, saying:
“I take full responsibility for my conduct.”