A former CIA officer has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying for China in a case considered part of an “alarming trend” in the United States intelligence community.

Kevin Mallory was convicted by a federal jury last June under the Espionage Act for selling classified US “defense information” to a Chinese intelligence agent for $25,000 during trips to Shanghai in March and April 2017, and for making false statements.

The prosecution had sought a life sentence, alleging that Mallory intended to turn over information about human assets working for US intelligence.

The defence had asked for punishment of 10 years, citing the relatively small amount of money involved and the fact that Mallory had voluntarily disclosed his contacts with the Chinese to his former CIA employers.

But a phone that his Chinese handler had given to Mallory to facilitate covert communications, provided evidence of guilt, the justice department alleged.

“Your object is to gain information, and my object is to be paid,” Mallory had said in a text message to a Chinese agent in May 2017.

Classified information to sell

It was one of a number of communications that talked about classified information that Mallory could sell to China’s intelligence service. An FBI analysis on the phone that Mallory had consented to uncovered the messages.

It appears he had expected the phone’s secure messaging features would keep the conversation hidden.

The fluent Mandarin speaker had held a number of positions included “working as a covert case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)” the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

He had held a top-secret security clearance until 2012 when he left government service.

Mallory is one of several US officials with high-level security clearances who have arrested and charged over unsanctioned dealings with Chinese intelligence.

“At its heart, this was a very basic crime,” prosecutor John Gibbs said during Friday’s hearing. “He was desperate for money, and the most valuable thing he had was our nation’s secrets.”

Gibbs said the $25,000 Mallory received was just the beginning of what would have occurred if he hadn’t been caught.

‘Betraying their country’

“This case is one in an alarming trend of former US intelligence officers being targeted by China and betraying their country and colleagues,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said of the Mallory case.

“This sentence, together with the recent guilty pleas of Ron Hansen in Utah and Jerry Lee in Virginia, deliver the stern message that our former intelligence officers have no business partnering with the Chinese, or any other adversarial foreign intelligence service.”

Former DIA official Ron Hansen faces 15 years in prison after pleading guilty in March to charges of attempting to sell classified information to the Chinese.

In April, a former diplomat, Candace Marie Claiborne, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about money she received from Chinese intelligence agents in exchange for US documents.

And in the most significant case, on May 1, former CIA Officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee pleaded guilty to spying for China.

Lee, 54, faces a possible life sentence. Arrested in January 2018, he was suspected of having provided Beijing with the information it needed to bring down a CIA network of informants in China between 2010 and 2012.