A former CIA agent suspected of being the mole who helped bring down the network's operations in China early this decade has pleaded guilty to spying for Beijing. Prosecutors say that after Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 54, left the US to live in Hong Kong in 2007, China paid him to provide the names of informants, the BBC reports. Former CIA officials say up to 20 covert agents were imprisoned or executed in the years after China turned Lee, who recruited clandestine sources during his years with the agency. Prosecutors say Lee's Chinese handlers promised him he would be financially set for life if he provided information. In a plea deal, the former agent, who was arrested at New York's JFK airport in January last year, pleaded guilty to conspiring with China to commit espionage; two lesser charges of retaining secret information after leaving the CIA were dropped.
Lee, who worked for the CIA between 1994 and 2007, will be sentenced in August. The plea deal calls for a minimum sentence of 21 years in prison, though a life sentence is possible. Lee's attorney, Edward MacMahon, says the government's court filings do not blame Lee for the deaths of agents, NPR reports. "Those were stories leaked to the media," MacMahon says. US District Judge TS Ellis said Wednesday that whether Lee actually delivered secrets to China is "a matter that will come out to some extent in sentencing," the AP reports. Investigators found evidence including a notebook with the real names of covert CIA informants in China after luring him back to the US with a job offer and searching his hotel room. (China is believed to have shared information on covert CIA agents with Russia.)