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Alexandria, Virginia — Prosecutors say a former CIA case officer betrayed his country by giving a Chinese spy information about human assets and other top-secret information in exchange for $25 000.

But defence lawyers say their client is a loyal American who was merely stringing the Chinese along to try to get them to expose details of their own intelligence operation.

A jury heard opening statements Wednesday in the trial of Kevin Mallory, 60, of Leesburg, who was working as a self-employed consultant when he returned from Shanghai with more than $16 000 in undeclared cash.

Defence attorney Geremy Kamens said Mallory had grown suspicious about a Chinese think tank's job offer and hatched a plan to feed them phoney documents. He told people at the CIA, but prosecutors said that was just to cover his tracks.

Prosecutor Jennifer Gellie told jurors that Mallory's scheme unravelled when he was selected for secondary screening at O'Hare Airport in April 2017 on a flight back from Shanghai with his son. There customs agents found $16,500 in unreported cash, and they questioned Mallory about the nature of his trip.

The customs agents allowed Mallory entry after assessing a $188 tariff on some electronics Mallory said he had purchased. But Gellie said the encounter prompted Mallory to reach out to some old CIA contacts to concoct a cover story for his espionage.

Gellie said Mallory agreed in May 2017 to be questioned about his contacts, and that he was caught off guard during that interview when a Samsung phone given to him by the Chinese displayed text conversations between Mallory and the Chinese recruiter — Mallory had expected the phone's secure messaging features would keep the conversation hidden, Gellie said.

In one text message, Mallory wrote: "your object is to gain information, and my object is to be paid."

Agents later searched Mallory's home and found two small computer discs — one balled up in tin foil in a closet box filled with junk.

Gellie said the drives contained secret and top-secret documents, some of which had been sent to the Chinese recruiter on that Samsung phone. One document contained information about human assets, Gellie said.

"Kevin Mallory chose to pass closely held government secrets to a Chinese government agent," Gellie told the jury.

Kamens, though, said Mallory reached out to his old CIA contacts months before he was supposedly spooked by the airport inspection. During testimony Wednesday, a CIA analyst and a CIA contractor testified that Mallory contacted them in February 2017, two months before the Shanghai flight. One of the two testified that Mallory wanted him to reach out to China contacts in the CIA because he was concerned that the think-tank offer was not on the level. The other testified that he could not recall exactly why Mallory reached out.

"The only reason we are sitting in this courtroom is Mr Mallory knocked on the front door of the CIA" to tell them about the offer he received from the Chinese.

The trial is being heard in the Eastern District of Virginia, which is home to the CIA and Pentagon and often plays host to national security and espionage cases. Still, espionage trials are a rarity, given that both sides have strong incentives to reach plea deals. The government is concerned about exposing secrets, while defendants are worried about potentially stiff sentences.

The last espionage-related trial in the Alexandria courthouse came in 2009 when Pentagon official James Fondren was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for charges involving espionage and making false statements to the FBI. Fondren was convicted of providing classified documents to Tai Shen Kuo, a Taiwanese national who was working for communist China.

Mallory, though, is charged under a different statute that allows for stiffer penalties. The last trial under this specific statute came in 2003, when defense contractor Brian Patrick Regan was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for offering intelligence to Iraq and China.

Mallory faces up to life in prison.

AP