'Very discreet': arrested CIA spy kept a low profile in Hong Kong
A former CIA agent arrested on suspicion of keeping classified information, including the names of informants in China, was virtually unknown in Hong Kong, where he lived, according to interviews with security experts.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, kept a low profile in the former British colony, where he lived for most of the time since leaving the CIA in 2007. He was largely unknown in security and intelligence circles in the city and avoided leaving a digital footprint.
Those who had heard of him before his arrest on Tuesday described a man who largely kept to himself and did not elicit suspicion among a community of private security professionals with decades of experience working at various government agencies.
He did not maintain any internet presence under his name in English or Chinese, or under an alternative spelling Zhen Cheng Li. He may have used an alias or avoided using public internet accounts altogether.
He settled in Hong Kong after leaving the CIA and returned after a brief stint in the US in 2013.
Lee was arrested after stepping off a Cathay Pacific flight to New York in a visit that reportedly surprised US agents investigating him.
US federal agents found in 2012 he had notebooks containing secret operational notes from his time at the CIA, about “asset meetings, operational meeting locations, operational phone numbers, true names of assets and covert facilities”, according to court documents.
It is unclear why they did not charge him at the time. Lee faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of “unlawful retention of national defense information”.
He reportedly was responsible for passing the names of CIA informants in China to Chinese authorities. More than a dozen US sources were killed or imprisoned between 2010 and 2012, and American authorities struggled to determine the source of the leaks, according to the New York Times.
It was a major blow to US intelligence efforts in China, and hindered the ability to obtain inside information at a time when the Chinese government underwent a once a decade leadership transition.
Lee was not charged with spying this week, a case that may be difficult to prove in court.
But former Hong Kong police superintendent Clement Lai, said he was “not surprised” Lee may have provided intelligence to Beijing, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
“Apparently, he operated here in Hong Kong very discreetly and not many people knew him,” said Lai, who briefly met Lee.
Most recently in Hong Kong he was working at Christie’s, the international auction house, and the company suspended an unnamed employee thought to be Lee, the Wall Street Journal reported. He reportedly ran a team tasked with providing security assessments of employees and property.
Lee is a naturalised American citizen who grew up in the US and served in the army before joining the CIA as a case officer in 1994, according to the Justice Department.