Hunting a CIA Mole, Agents Gambled and Let a Suspect Return to China

His apprehension, on the same single charge that could have been brought years ago, is the latest development in one of the most damaging affairs in modern C.I.A. history. But it does nothing to settle the question of how or whether Mr. Lee was involved. For years, he was the prime suspect in a mole hunt, but officials disagreed over whether he was actually to blame.

One government official said there was no plan at the moment to charge Mr. Lee with espionage, handing over American secrets to the Chinese or anything beyond the one felony count of illegally possessing classified information. That would leave open the mystery of how China managed to unravel the C.I.A.’s web of informants.

Neither the F.B.I. nor the Justice Department would discuss this high-stakes back story on Wednesday. “This is an example of the system working,” said Ian

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