Arrested former CIA agent was auction house security guard

A 2017 photo shows a man (blue tie) identified by local Hong Kong media as former CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee standing in front of a member of security at the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi painting at the Christie's showroom in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - The former CIA agent arrested in the United States earlier this week on suspicion of helping Chinese spies was a security guard at Christie's in Hong Kong, the auction house said Thursday (Jan 18).

Hong Kong resident Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a naturalised US citizen also known as Zhen Cheng Li, was arrested late on Monday after he arrived at JFK International Airport in New York.

His arrest was reportedly linked to Beijing's brutal dismantling five years ago of the CIA's network of undercover operatives and informants inside China.

When asked whether Lee, 53, had worked at Christie's, the auction house said they had suspended a Hong Kong employee pending a criminal investigation, without naming him.

"This person's role, which he occupied for the last 20 months, was focused on physical security for Christie's facilities and staff," said a statement from global head of communications Catherine Manson.

Manson added that his role was not linked to data security or IT at the company and that Christie's had "no involvement in this matter".

The South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that Lee had previously investigated counterfeit cigarettes in Hong Kong for Japan Tobacco International after he left the CIA in 2007.

Lee served in the US Army in the 1980s and spent 13 years from 1994 at the CIA, where he had top secret clearance.

The charge against him was limited to one count of unlawful retention of national defence information. But the details of an investigation spanning at least five years suggested much more.

Lee's indictment said that in 2012, FBI agents had secretly examined his luggage while he was travelling.

They found two notebooks jammed with classified information, including the identities of CIA covert agents and assets, notes from their meetings, locations of covert facilities, and phone numbers.

The charge did not say whether this information, which would have been extremely valuable to Beijing, had been provided to the Chinese, or whether they had gained access to it otherwise.

According to The New York Times, US counter-intelligence has been working overtime since at least 2012 to uncover a possible pro-Beijing mole within the ranks of America's espionage services.

The Times reported last year that starting in 2010 to the end of 2012, the Chinese uncovered and killed "at least a dozen" sources the CIA had inside China and imprisoned another six or more.

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