Ex-FBI handler of Chinese double agent pleads guilty to lying

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- A former FBI agent charged with allowing classified documents to fall into the hands of his lover -- a woman suspected of being a Chinese double agent -- pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying about their affair.

James J. Smith, 60, also agreed to cooperate with the government in its investigation.

U.S. District Judge Florence Marie Cooper said Smith faces up to five years in prison at sentencing next January. But outside court, defense attorney Brian Sun said the sentencing guidelines indicate his client would serve no more than six months and perhaps no time.

Sun emphasized that Smith admitted only that he had a sexual relationship with Katrina Leung and that he lied to the FBI about it. He did not plead guilty to any counts involving mishandling of classified information.

Smith was the longtime handler of Leung, a naturalized U.S. citizen and socialite who was recruited 20 years ago to work for the FBI by gathering intelligence during her frequent business trips to China. Prosecutors claim she began working for China around 1990.

Smith was originally charged with gross negligence for allegedly allowing Leung access to classified materials and with fraud for allegedly filing false reports to FBI headquarters about her reliability. He faced 40 years in prison if convicted of those charges. The charge to which he pleaded guilty -- making a false statement -- was added in February.

Leung, 50, is charged with taking classified documents from Smith's briefcase. She has not been accused of relaying that information to China.

She faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of illegally copying and possessing national security papers that she intended to use, or could have used, to harm the interests of the United States. She has denied the allegations and is awaiting trial.

Her attorneys, Janet Levine and John Vandevelde, were in court for Smith's plea and issued a statement later.

"We are happy for James J. Smith and wish him well because, as far as we are concerned, he did nothing worthy of a criminal prosecution, but neither did Katrina Leung," the attorneys said.

"Although we may have to fight to the end because the FBI has tried to protect its own and shift blame for their mistakes to Katrina, an outsider, a Chinese-American and a woman, we are confident that this case is much ado about nothing and Katrina Leung will be vindicated."

Smith, whose wife and son were in court, stood before the judge and recounted his FBI career, which began in 1970, his recruitment of Leung, and the beginning of a sexual affair with her in 1983, which continued until his arrest last year.

The former agent said that in 2000, when questioned by the FBI during a routine evaluation, "I was asked if there was anything in my background that could compromise me and I said, 'No.' ... That statement was false."

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