Federal officials announced on Thursday that two U.S. Navy sailors had been detained on suspicion of providing secret military data to the Chinese Communist Party.
“These individuals stand accused of violating the commitments they made to protect the United States and betraying the public trust, to the benefit of the [People’s Republic of China] government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a news release.
Upon reporting for work on Wednesday at the homeport of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet in California, U.S. Navy Sailor Jinchao Wei, an active-duty machinist’s mate aboard the amphibious U.S.S. Essex assault ship stationed at Naval Base San Diego, was detained on suspicion of espionage-related crimes.
Wei, 22, was charged with conspiring to provide a Chinese intelligence officer with information related to the U.S.S. Essex and other Navy ships through the use of encrypted messages, according to U.S. officials.
Wei is accused of communicating with the Chinese intelligence officer as early as February 2022.
In exchange for thousands of dollars over the course of the conspiracy, Wei is accused of providing the intelligence officer with the locations of numerous Navy ships, defensive armaments, and technical and mechanical manuals.
The sailor is also accused of passing over details regarding the quantity of U.S. Marines who trained during earlier international maritime combat drills.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California, said.
On suspicion of conspiracy and accepting payment, authorities also detained U.S. Navy Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao at Naval Base Ventura County in California. He was accused of passing on vital military information to a Chinese official who was acting as a maritime economic researcher.
Zhao, 26, allegedly corresponded with an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer from August 2021 to May 2023 by “surreptitiously recording” photos and films of top-secret military secrets and passing them to the overseas officer, according to the authorities.
In exchange for classified, controlled operational plans for a significant American military exercise involving naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations, and logistics in the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese intelligence officer reportedly paid Zhao about $14,866, according to a news release.
Zhao is also charged with exchanging pictures of electrical schematics and designs for a radar system installed on a U.S. military facility in Okinawa, Japan, according to an indictment against him.
“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”
If Zhao is found guilty, the maximum sentence is 20 years in prison.
In a press conference on Thursday, Fox News quoted Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen as saying that China’s threat to American national security “stands apart” in the international arena.
“China is unrivaled in the audacity and the range of its malign efforts to subvert our laws,” Olsen said Thursday.