Two US Navy sailors charged with giving Chinese spies secret military info
'Quite obviously f**king espionage,' one suspect allegedly blabbed
Two US Navy service members appeared in federal court Thursday accused of espionage and stealing sensitive military information for China in separate cases.
Jinchao Wei, aka Patrick Wei, and Wenheng Zhao, aka Thomas Zhao, each pleaded not guilty. According to US prosecutors at his hearing in southern California, Wei allegedly told a fellow sailor he was being recruited by Beijing for what he described as "quite obviously fucking espionage."
"We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith," said US Attorney Randy Grossman in a statement.
"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."
Wei, a 22-year-old machinist's mate assigned to the USS Essex amphibious assault ship, was arrested August 3 and charged with spying after he arrived for work at a naval base in San Diego, California. According to his indictment [PDF] Wei had exchanged classified information with a Chinese government contact just two days prior.
According to Uncle Sam, Wei had been handing off photos, videos, and technical manuals about US Navy ships and systems since February 2022. He held a US security clearance and had access to sensitive national defense information about ship weapons, propulsion, and desalination systems.
The other sailor, 26-year-old Zhao, was also arrested on Wednesday, charged with conspiracy and receipt of bribes from an official, and appeared in a central California court.
Zhao worked as a construction electrician at the Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California. He held a US security clearance, and allegedly received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for sensitive US military information, photos and videos beginning in August 2021. It is said that the Chinese intel officer posed as a maritime economic researcher in order to persuade Zhao to hand over the info in exchange for payment.
"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 could be used to its advantage," said Matt Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security at the US Department of Justice, in announcing the charges against the two service members.
Beginning around Valentine's Day in 2022, a Chinese intel officer, identified as "Conspirator A" in the court documents, made contact with Wei and said he was interested in receiving secret military data, including national defense information, telling the sailor "original documents were preferred," according to the indictment.
The two agreed to use various encrypted chat systems to communicate, and Conspirator A instructed Wei to "destroy evidence regarding the nature of their relationship and their activities." From February 2022 to February 2023, Wei allegedly passed along information to his spymaster.
This, according to the court documents, included pictures and videos of ships moored at the naval base, details on the maintenance cycle aboard Navy ships, "multiple" photos and videos of the USS Essex with information about its weapons and weak points. He was also accused of passing on info on planned deployments and Navy training exercises, pictures of military weapons and other equipment, and more than 55 technical and mechanical manuals that detailed ships' systems.
"The unauthorized disclosure of this national defense information could place the national security of the United States, and the safety of defendant Jinchao Wei's fellow US Navy sailors, in jeopardy," the indictment stated.
In court on Thursday, Assistant US Attorney Fred Sheppard told the judge that Wei received between $10,000 and $15,000 from his Chinese spymaster in the past year. The indictment claimed Wei enjoyed a cozy relationship with his handler, who apparently congratulated the Chinese-born service member on becoming a US citizen in 2022 and suggested he come to China on holiday.
Wei's next hearing will be held August 8.
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Petty officer second class Zhao's alleged data theft began in August 2021 and lasted until at least May 2023, according to his indictment [PDF].
This included sending a Chinese intelligence officer controlled, unclassified military information, operational plans for a large-scale military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, documents detailing US Navy operational security, and photographs and videos of restricted areas on the Naval Base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island.
Zhao did have security clearance up to documents marked Secret and the indictment stated he met his contact over a dozen times to receive payment for services rendered.
For these services, the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao about $14,866, the indictment alleges. His next hearing is also set for August 8. ®