NATIONAL NEWS

2 US Navy sailors arrested on charges tied to national security and China

Aug 3, 2023, 9:56 AM | Updated: 1:08 pm

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two U.S. Navy sailors have been arrested and accused of providing sensitive military information to China — including details on wartime exercises, naval operations and critical technical material, federal officials said Thursday.

The two sailors, both based in California, were charged with similar moves to provide sensitive intelligence to the Chinese. But they were separate cases, and it wasn’t clear if the two were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer as part of a larger scheme. Federal officials at a news conference in San Diego declined to specify whether the sailors were aware of each other’s actions.

U.S. officials have for years expressed concern about the espionage threat they say the Chinese government poses, bringing criminal cases in recent years against Beijing intelligence operatives who have stolen sensitive government and commercial information, including through illegal hacking.

The pair of cases also comes on the heels of another insider-threat prosecution tied to the U.S. military, with the Justice Department in April arresting a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman on charges of leaking classified military documents about Russia’s war in Ukraine and other sensitive national security topics on Discord, a social media platform popular with people playing online games.

U.S. officials said the cases exemplify China’s brazenness in trying to obtain insight into U.S. military operations.

“Through the alleged crimes committed by these defendants, sensitive military information ended up in the hands of the People’s Republic of China,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman of the Southern District of California. He added that the charges demonstrate the Chinese government’s “determination to obtain information that is critical to our national defense by any means, so it could be used to their advantage.”

Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, was arrested Wednesday on a charge related to espionage involving conspiracy to send national defense information to Chinese officials, according to the U.S. authorities.

Wei, who was born in China, was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer while he was applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, prosecutors said, and admitted to the officer that he knew the arrangement could affect his application. Still, prosecutors said, he continued to send sensitive U.S. military information multiple times over the course of a year and even was congratulated by the Chinese officer once Wei became a U.S. citizen, Grossman said. He added that Wei “chose to turn his back on his newly adopted country” for greed.

The Justice Department also charged sailor Wenheng Zhao, 26, based at Naval Base Ventura County, north of San Diego, with conspiring to collect bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for U.S. naval exercise plans, operational orders and photos and videos of electrical systems at Navy facilities between August 2021 through at least this May.

The information included operational plans for a U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region. Prosecutors say Zhao also surreptitiously recorded information that he handed over.

Neither Zhao nor Wei could be reached for comment, and it was unclear if they had legal counsel.

The Justice Department charged Wei under a rarely-used Espionage Act statute that makes it a crime to gather or deliver information to aid a foreign government.

In an indictment released Thursday, federal prosecutors allege that Wei made contact with a Chinese government intelligence officer in February 2022 and, at the officer’s request, provided photographs and videos of the ship he served on, the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship that has a full flight deck and can carry an array of helicopters, including the MV-22 Ospreys.

He disclosed information about other ships as well, according to prosecutors. The indictment alleges he included as many as 50 manuals containing technical and mechanical data about the Navy’s amphibious assault ships as well as details about the number and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise, the Justice Department said. Several of the manuals contained information about the weapons systems and power structure of each ship.

The unnamed Chinese intelligence officer instructed Wei not to discuss their relationship, to share sensitive information and to destroy evidence to help them cover their tracks, officials said. Federal officials allege Wei was paid thousands of dollars for sharing the information.

It was unclear if federal officials were looking at other U.S. sailors and if the investigation was ongoing.

At the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that, “I think we have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to safeguarding and protecting sensitive information. And so if those rules are violated, appropriate action will be taken.” He declined to discuss any specifics of the cases.

U.S. Attorney Grossman said the charges reflect that China “stands apart in terms of the threat that its government poses to the United States. China is unrivaled in its audacity and the range of its maligned efforts to subvert our laws.”

He added that the U.S. will use “every tool in our arsenal to counter the threat and to deter China and those who have violated the rule of law and threaten our national security.”

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Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of sailor Wenheng Zhao’s name.

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2 US Navy sailors arrested on charges tied to national security and China