Why Foreign Intelligence Services Want to Recruit Retired Spies

  (Photo: Joshua K. Jackson via Pexels.com)

(Photo: Joshua K. Jackson via Pexels.com)

"Of course, if you want timely intelligence, you want a spy who is still in the job. However, if you are trying to catch moles in your system, going after a retired person makes sense. That person still knows identities and key information that can help you smoke out spies."

That's former longtime senior CIA officer John Sipher weighing in on the case of Jerry Chun Sing Lee, an ex-CIA case officer who was recently arrested for the illegal retention of classified information and is reportedly suspected by investigators of providing information to the Chinese government that aided it in a deadly counter-espionage operation beginning around 2010.

Lee was in the CIA for 13 years, but retired from the agency in 2007, according to court documents. Still, when the FBI secretly searched his hotel room during a trip to the U.S. in 2012, they purportedly discovered a trove of CIA secrets “including but not limited to, true names and phone numbers of assets and covert CIA employees, operational notes from asset meetings, operational meeting locations and locations of covert facilities." Lee had kept them on dozens of pages in a date book and address book, the FBI said.

Read More: Suspected Mole Hid CIA Secrets in Handwritten Notebooks (RealClearLife)

Sipher, who said he does not know Lee, said it would make perfect sense for the Chinese to attempt to recruit someone like him, even if he was a few years past his farewell party.

"A retired person could do serious damage," Sipher said. "There are all sorts of security procedures to protect our sources -- compartmentalization, code names, secure systems etc. However, if you were someone directly involved in handling a case, you could do real damage. Any information about the person -- a name, specific access, specific intelligence provided, where [they] met, when... can all help a [counter-intelligence] service catch spies."

"Plus since they are retired, they are easier to meet," he said. 

Related: The Controversial Call for 'Humility' in Intelligence Analysis

Sipher, who said he's never been approached by a foreign intelligence service since leaving the agency, said the American intelligence community has used the same strategy to glean information from retired spies in "China, Russia and elsewhere."

"I’ve seen our counter-intelligence investigators take small pieces of information and put them together with other pieces to build a story," he said. "At some point, a small piece leads to discovery. This guy [Lee] could have all sorts of information even if he didn’t have the identities [of the informants] themselves."

Lee has been charged with the illegal retention of defense information, and court documents do not accuse him of working with the Chinese government, despite the reported suspicions of investigators. No attorney is yet listed for him in public records. The CIA and Department of Justice declined to comment for this report.

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