Two sailors in the United States Navy have been charged with and arrested on suspicion of passing classified information about the US military to Chinese intelligence agents.
According to a statement issued on Thursday by the US Attorney for the Southern District of California, one of the sailors, identified as Jinchao Wei, was arrested on his way to work at Naval Base San Diego on Wednesday. The base is a major Navy outpost in the region.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, the other arrested sailor, was based out of California’s Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme. Separate from the allegations against Zhao, the indictment against Wei was unsealed on Thursday.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California said in a statement that Wei made his first appearance in federal court on Thursday and that his federal defenders entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
The tweet below verifies the news:
Two US Navy sailors have been arrested on charges of sharing sensitive national defense information with China https://t.co/5Rg4KsSd8l
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) August 3, 2023
At a press conference on Thursday, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matt Olson said that 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.”
Machinist’s Mate Wei, according to the prosecution, began a “handler/asset” connection with a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022. A machinist’s mate is a type of engineer who works on ships and is in charge of the machinery.
The indictment claims that as part of the agreement, Wei supplied the Chinese commander images and videos of the USS Essex and other Navy ships, as well as dozens of technical and mechanical documentation detailing the ships’ designs and weaponry. Wei allegedly made hundreds of dollars in return.
According to the accusation, Wei became a citizen of the United States on May 18, 2022, and the Chinese intelligence officer is accused of sending him congratulations on the occasion.
Much of the data Wei is said to have transferred to the Chinese commander originated from secure Navy computer systems, to which he had access thanks to his clearance. Meanwhile, the indictment claims that Zhao gave classified US military intelligence to an imposter posing as a maritime economic researcher between August 2021 and May 2023.
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This information allegedly included operational plans for a large military exercise in the Indo-Pacific. According to the accusation, that individual was actually a Chinese intelligence operative.
Prosecutors claim that Zhao, who had a security clearance and was responsible for installing, repairing, and servicing electrical equipment on US military installations, took photos of computer screens displaying “operational orders of military training exercises” and gave them to the officer.
Prosecutors also claim that he sent images of blueprints and diagrams for a US radar system located at a military post in Okinawa, Japan. Prosecutors claim that Zhao “was required to protect controlled unclassified information, and information related to the Navy’s operational security.”,” even though the documents were labeled “unclassified” and “for official use only.”
According to the paperwork, he was also obligated to report any unusual activity. Prosecutors claim that Zhao bribed the police officer with a sum of money equal to about $15,000.
US Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada said at a press conference on Thursday that the prosecution against Zhao is part of a bigger national plan to resist illegal efforts from nation-state actors to steal our nation’s critical military information.
To quote the indictment, “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.” These arrests bring the total number of US service men detained on espionage charges this year to at least three.
Jack Teixeira, who served in the Massachusetts Air National Guard and so had access to secret national defense material, was indicted for allegedly sharing that information on the messaging app Discord. CNN reports that the strength of the Chinese navy has now surpassed that of the United States Navy, adding to rising fears inside the United States military.
“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.”
When asked about the story during a briefing on Thursday, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder declined to comment, telling reporters, “I think we have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to safeguarding and protecting sensitive information.”
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“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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