Two US Navy sailors arrested for allegedly sharing sensitive military information with China

Aug 3, 2023, 3:38 PM

Navy sailors are pictured here at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, on March 13.

Navy sailors are pictured here at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, on March 13. Mandatory Credit: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg/Getty Images/FILE

(CNN) — Two US Navy sailors have been indicted and arrested for allegedly sending sensitive US military information to Chinese intelligence officers.

One of the sailors, Jinchao Wei, was arrested Wednesday as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego, according to a statement released Thursday by the US Attorney for the Southern District of California. The base is one of the largest Navy installations in the Pacific.

The other sailor who has been arrested, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme in California.

The indictment against Wei was unsealed Thursday and is separate from the charges against Zhao.

“The charges demonstrate the (People’s Republic of China’s) determination to obtain information that is critical to our national defense by any means, so it can be used to their advantage,” Matt Olson, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for national security, said at a news conference Thursday.

Prosecutors say that Wei, who served as a machinist’s mate on the USS Essex, allegedly entered into a “handler/asset” relationship with a Chinese intelligence officer beginning in February 2022. Machinist’s mates are a class of engineers, and are responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing ship equipment.

As part of that alleged arrangement, Wei sent photos and videos of the Essex and other Navy ships to the Chinese officer, the indictment says, as well as dozens of technical and mechanical manuals relating to the ships’ layouts and weapons systems. In return, Wei allegedly received thousands of dollars.

The indictment indicates that Wei received US citizenship during this period, with the Chinese intelligence officer allegedly congratulating Wei on receiving citizenship on May 18, 2022.

Much of the information Wei allegedly sent to the Chinese officer was stored on restricted-access Navy computer systems that Wei was able to access because he had a security clearance.

The indictment against Zhao, meanwhile, alleges that between August 2021 and May 2023, Zhao provided sensitive US military information – including operational plans for a major military exercise in the Indo-Pacific – to a person posing as a maritime economic researcher. That person was actually a Chinese intelligence officer, the indictment says.

Zhao, who was responsible for installing, repairing and servicing electrical equipment on US military installations, also had a security clearance, prosecutors say, and allegedly took photos of computer screens that displayed “operational orders of military training exercises” and provided them to the officer.

He also allegedly transmitted photos of blueprints and diagrams of a US radar system stationed on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, prosecutors say. Those documents were marked unclassified/for official use only, but prosecutors say that as part of his official duties Zhao “was required to protect controlled unclassified information, and information related to the Navy’s operational security.” He was also required to report suspicious incidents, the court filing states.

In exchange, Zhao received approximately $15,000 from the officer, prosecutors allege.

“The case against Mr. Zhao is part of a larger national strategy to combat criminal efforts from nation state actors to steal our nation’s sensitive military information,” Martin Estrada, the US attorney for the Central District of California, said during Thursday’s news conference. “The scheme alleged here is just one more example of the People’s Republic of China’s ongoing and brazen campaign to target US officials with access to sensitive military secrets.”

Taken together, the arrests mark at least the third time this year that US service members have been arrested and charged with espionage. Another US service member with a security clearance and access to classified national defense information, Jack Teixeira, was indicted for allegedly leaking classified intelligence that he obtained as part of his job in the Massachusetts Air National Guard to the social media platform Discord.

The arrests also come amid growing concerns by the US military that China is making strategic strides against the US – particularly the Chinese navy, which has now surpassed the US Navy’s fleet size, CNN has reported.

“We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman of the Southern District of California. “Our nation’s safety and security are in their hands. When a soldier or sailor chooses cash over country, and hands over national defense information in an ultimate act of betrayal, the United States will aggressively investigate and prosecute.”

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder declined to respond to the news during a briefing on Thursday, telling reporters, “I think we have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to safeguarding and protecting sensitive information.”

“The broader issue of espionage or the lack of proper handling of classified information is something as old as warfare itself,” Ryder said. “That said, again, we have a robust set of policies and procedures going through the situation that you’re referencing in terms of the airman, as you know, we have done a very thorough analysis on steps that can be taken to further tighten controls and we’re working through that process now.”

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Two US Navy sailors arrested for allegedly sharing sensitive military information with China