As It Happens

Ex-CIA agent's arrest means the U.S. has been 'blind in China' for years, says former spy

A former CIA agent was arrested at the Kennedy Airport in New York on Monday on suspicion he helped China identify U.S. spies.
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. Over a span of two years, the Chinese government killed or imprisoned more than a dozen CIA sources. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

A lengthy investigation into a CIA officer suspected of helping the Chinese government identify American spies means the U.S. has been "blind in China" for years, says a former spy.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, was arrested at the Kennedy Airport in New York on Monday, and charged in a federal court with unlawful retention of national defence information. He left the CIA in 2007 and had been living in Hong Kong.

The arrest comes after an FBI investigation that began around 2012 —  two years after more than a dozen CIA informants in China began being killed or imprisoned by the Chinese government.

The question of how these sources ended up in the hands of the Chinese authorities loomed over the agency.

Now, two small books with classified information that were found in Lee's luggage in 2012 may be the key. 

Robert Baer is a former CIA officer who served for 21 years, mostly in the Middle East. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about this case. Here is part of their conversation. 

Look at it this way, there's no conceivable reason this guy copied down the names of these sources … unless the intent was espionage.- Robert Baer

As far as you know, what is this former CIA officer suspected of doing?

The indictment talks about mishandling classified information. That's a rather minor charge, but the fact that they brought it, and so publicly, means that they suspect espionage, and what this man did was take information from the CIA about agents in China. Those are sources that report to the CIA.

They clearly believe that he took those names and their identifying date and gave it to Chinese intelligence, even though that's not in the indictment.

Robert Baer is a former CIA officer. He says the agency would have known something was wrong as soon as agents started disappearing or being killed. (Submitted by Robert Baer)

Do you have any idea how many informants or agents ... that he [allegedly] exposed?

Well, 20 would have been pretty much the entire inventory of CIA assets inside China. 

It's hard to recruit Chinese. It takes years and years. It takes people who speak Mandarin and so on. And China is a police state, it's very difficult to run sources there. So, you know, trying to rebuild this will take decades. This is a total catastrophe for the CIA.

Harmful to the CIA, but harmful especially for those who have disappeared into a prison or who have been killed.

They're probably going to all end up dead if, in fact, they were spying for the CIA. The Chinese do not look at this kindly. They run a tough intelligence service and these people are not going to fare well.

Chinese authorities targeting CIA agents is considered one of the worst intelligence breaches in years for the U.S. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

At what point did ... the CIA realize that this was happening?

They knew right away. This goes back to 2007. They knew that sources stopped showing up to meetings … or just disappeared all together.

Once there's … a suspicion that there is a serious leak and that your people who are informing are compromised, does the CIA stop recruiting? Does it make any gestures or moves to try and protect the people?

Well no, they pretty much close down operations if they can't identify why the compromise occurred.

Do you know if that's what happened?

Yeah, I'm sure that's what happened. In other words, the CIA was blind in China.

U.S. President Donald Trump waves next to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his first visit to the region as president. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

What does that tell you about what United States knows or understands about what's going on in China?

There's key events occurring in China and one, of course, is North Korea. Are the Chinese violating on purpose the sanctions on North Korea? We don't know, for instance, how far the Chinese will go to crack down on North Korea.

Those kind of big events in China are not public and normally you'd get human sources to tell you what's going on and we don't. You're listening to CNN and reading the Financial Times to figure out what's going on in China, which is not where an intelligence agency wants to be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Robert Baer, listen in the audio player above.