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The saga of the Chinese mole reads like a thriller

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- Behind last week's admission by a former CIA officer that he plotted to spy for China lies an astonishing tale of Beijing's espionage against America -- and the vindication of other CIA officers who were falsely suspected of being the Chinese mole.

This saga has a classic thriller plot, in which a suspect must find the real villain to clear his name. Unfortunately, most of the details of the true-life version remain secret, under seal at the U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria or in the vaults of the CIA. But knowledgeable sources sketched parts of the story that aren't classified.

Jerry Chun Shing Lee, who was a CIA case officer from 1994 to 2007, pleaded guilty May 1 to conspiring with Chinese intelligence agents to provide secret information. U.S. officials won't discuss the precise damage Lee did, but intelligence experts believe he was part of an aggressive Chinese spy operation that led to the exposure, arrest and execution of at least 20 CIA sources inside China. For an intelligence service like the CIA, that's as bad as it gets.

The resolution of the Lee case comes at a time when the Trump administration is threatening to escalate its trade war against Beijing to force China to stop stealing commercial secrets and allow fairer trade. The negotiations will hit a deadline Friday, when the administration has threatened to raise tariffs to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese products.

Trump's hard-nosed and sometimes erratic bargaining tactics have roiled financial markets this week. But as the Lee case shows, the Chinese are hardly innocent victims. They have been burrowing deep into the CIA to steal its most precious secrets, as well as pilfering corporate data wherever they can.

Lee pleaded guilty to only one count of conspiracy, and prosecutors said his plea agreement and an accompanying statement of evidence were "not intended to be a full enumeration of all of the facts surrounding the defendant's case." Asked if Lee had agreed to cooperate with the CIA in sharing additional details, his attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr., responded: "There is nothing in the plea agreement that deals with his cooperating."

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The hunt for a Chinese mole began after the CIA started losing its key sources in China in 2010. Lee, who first met with Chinese intelligence officers in April 2010, according to prosecutors, soon came under suspicion. Another suspect was a former senior case officer who had served in China when the blown network of spies was recruited.

The senior case officer was eventually cleared, thanks to Chinese tradecraft mistakes that revealed their contact with Lee, a source said. The bungling came in Thailand in 2013, when Chinese spies made a sudden recruitment pitch to a former CIA operative who had worked with the senior case officer. She figured that someone had given the Chinese operative her name and told him it must have been Lee.

Her Chinese would-be recruiter then foolishly blurted out: "No, I'm not handling Jerry. It's another team," according to a knowledgeable source.

The former operative and her senior colleague promptly reported the conversation to the FBI, which added the Thailand evidence to its Lee file. In 2012, the FBI had copied two notebooks and a flash drive that Lee brought with him to Hawaii, according to prosecutors. That evidence helped lead to Lee's conviction last week.

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