WASHINGTON — A former C.I.A. officer accused of conspiring with the Chinese government as America’s spy network in China was being dismantled is expected to plead guilty to federal charges on Wednesday, according to court papers.
The former officer, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was charged with the unlawful retention of secret information and conspiracy to deliver that information to aid a foreign government. In their indictment, prosecutors said Mr. Lee had unauthorized possession of the true names and phone numbers of C.I.A. assets and employees.
The Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia announced that a change of plea hearing is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Such a hearing signals that a defendant is expected to plead guilty. Lawyers for Mr. Lee would not comment, and it was unclear whether he will plea to lesser charges or what sentence he will face.
While the charges against Mr. Lee focused on his retention of classified information, he was prosecuted against the background of both the rising level of Chinese espionage and the collapse of the C.I.A.’s network of assets in China between 2010 and 2012, when more than a dozen of the agency’s assets in China were arrested or killed. It was a devastating loss, according to former C.I.A. officials.
National security officials have described an ever-intensifying intelligence campaign by China to steal American technology, collect sensitive information about government employees and recruit Americans to spy against their country. As Beijing stepped up its own efforts to build its own spy network in the United States, it has worked to destroy America’s network in China.
Counterintelligence experts and intelligence officials have long been divided over the cause of the collapse of the C.I.A.’s network in China. Some officials believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Others believed a mole was at work, and Mr. Lee was one of the leading suspects.
Mr. Lee’s contacts with Chinese intelligence, according to the indictment against him, occurred at the same time as the C.I.A.’s covert network, which Mr. Lee helped build, was collapsing. That added up to compelling circumstantial evidence against Mr. Lee, said James M. Olson, a professor at the Bush School at Texas A&M University and former C.I.A. counterintelligence chief.
Counterintelligence experts say the loss of Chinese assets by the C.I.A. that occurred at the same time that Mr. Lee conspired with Chinese intelligence assets, according to prosecutors, was comparable to the destruction of the American spy network in Russia in the 1980s.
“We were wiped out in Russia, and something very similar happened in our China operations,” said Mr. Olson, the author of a new book that discusses the Lee case and other counterintelligence cases, “To Catch a Spy.”
Mr. Lee faced a maximum penalty of life in prison on the original charges against him, although federal sentences are usually short of the maximum. He will undoubtedly face a far shorter sentence as a result of the plea, although lawyers would not discuss the agreement until it is made public on Wednesday.
A naturalized American citizen who was born in Hong Kong, Mr. Lee grew up in Hawaii and joined the C.I.A. in 1994.
He worked as a case officer, whose primary job was to recruit “clandestine human intelligence sources,” according to the indictment. In other words, his job was to persuade Chinese nationals to spy on their government for the United States.
After leaving the C.I.A. in 2007, Mr. Lee took a job with an international tobacco company but was fired two years later. In June 2010, Mr. Lee started a cigarette import business in Hong Kong. It was unsuccessful, according to the indictment.
Shortly before starting the tobacco business, Mr. Lee met on April 26, 2010, with two people whom the American government said were Chinese intelligence officers. The next month, Mr. Lee reported the meeting to the C.I.A., but not the fact that the officers had offered him $100,000 in exchange for his help, the indictment said.
The Chinese requested 21 pieces of information from Mr. Lee, the indictment said. After the request, from May 2010 to December 2013, Mr. Lee deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars into his bank account, despite his new businesses’ financial failure.
As part of an intelligence operation, the F.B.I. lured Mr. Lee back to Virginia in 2012 and secretly searched his luggage.
According to the indictment, Mr. Lee traveled from Virginia to Hong Kong in August 2012, with a layover in Hawaii. In his luggage were notebooks containing notes from meetings with informants, meeting locations used by the C.I.A. and the true names of agency informants.
The F.B.I. later confronted Mr. Lee with copies of the notebooks, but he denied he had kept work-related notes at home and said that he did not have those notes in his luggage, according to the indictment.
The Lee case, Mr. Olson said, shows the need for the intelligence agencies to compartmentalize information even more than they do, to make sure no one has access to a large number of the C.I.A.’s assets in a foreign country.
Mr. Lee’s case suggests that the American government may also need to pay closer attention to the financial dealings of their former agents.
“We do not do a good job of monitoring the behavior and circumstances of our former employees who had access,” Mr. Olson said. “It is a shortfall in our counterintelligence.”