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What's Next For Intelligence Gathering In China After Leak Of CIA Confidential Information

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Honolulu, Hawaii, in August of 2012, a team of FBI agents searched a hotel room. Inside a piece of luggage, they found a small, clear plastic travel pack and, inside that pack, a datebook and an address book. The books belonged to former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee. They contained handwritten notes and classified information, meeting places and the true names and phone numbers of CIA sources in China.

Lee was arrested this week at JFK Airport in New York. As The New York Times first reported, this comes as the CIA is trying to bounce back from one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades, a breach that has seen more than a dozen CIA sources in China killed or imprisoned.

Dennis Wilder retired from the CIA in 2016. He was deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific. And I asked him how Lee's case fits into a pattern of China targeting former CIA officers.

DENNIS WILDER: The Chinese certainly are an aggressive service, and the United States is one of their top targets for intelligence collection. And so, yes, their agents are all over the world, in the United States, in foreign countries trying to find vulnerable people to recruit from within the intelligence community and the CIA. This is well-known, and our officers are aware of this and work very hard to defend themselves against this kind of activity. But occasionally the Chinese have success.

KELLY: I mean, I called this episode one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades. How grave is the damage to CIA operations?

WILDER: Well, honestly, without a little more information, it is hard to gauge. The most secret inner-sanctum of any intelligence agency is the names of the people who have agreed to commit treason against their own governments. Someone taking those names and giving them to a foreign power will mean that people die. It will mean that their families are in jeopardy. It is one of the most serious morale-busting things that can happen.

KELLY: Morale-busting, and I assume there's always that concern as well that it will discourage people from cooperating with the CIA in future, whether those are sources in China or elsewhere in the world.

WILDER: Absolutely. And one of the things that would have happened in this case, depending on exactly when he handed over information - and in fact we don't even know for sure that he handed it over, but let's assume he handed it over. If he had handed it over, hopefully it was after 2012, not before 2012.

If it was after they found the notebook, obviously there would have been a mitigation attempt to get the agents to some safe place out of the country. There would have been attempts to help their families. There's a very high standard, particularly in the U.S. intelligence community and the CIA, for protecting your sources and for protecting them even when they may be in trouble like would be in this case.

KELLY: So you're describing a timing question. Was he allegedly cooperating with China before or after the FBI was onto him and might have been able to warn and help protect some of those sources?

WILDER: Right. People are making a leap to this other situation, but there's nothing in the information we've seen so far that actually links the two together.

KELLY: You're raising an interesting question here, which is that whatever ends up happening in the case of Jerry Lee, that we don't know whether the damage has been contained or whether China has, say, another mole or electronic surveillance going on which may be giving it insight into CIA operations.

WILDER: This is really one of the most difficult things for an intelligence organization like the CIA to deal with because you never know about penetrations. Obviously if you did, you would get rid of them. This has driven counterintelligence people pretty much around the bend for years and years. You have to continue to operate. You can't let it stop you. But you're constantly asking yourself, have we done enough to defend ourselves against this kind of penetration of the organization?

KELLY: Dennis, thanks very much.

WILDER: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Dennis Wilder, who served in senior Asia posts at both the CIA and the National Security Council. He's now at Georgetown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.