US Navy sailor’s mom encouraged him to pass military details to China, prosecutor says
Aug 8, 2023, 5:44 PM | Updated: 6:36 pm
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)
SAN DIEGO (AP) — The mother of a U.S. Navy sailor charged with providing sensitive military information to China encouraged him to cooperate with a Chinese intelligence officer, telling her son it might help him get a job with the Chinese government someday, the prosecution said Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard made the accusation at a hearing in federal court in San Diego in urging the judge not to release Jinchao Wei, who was arrested last week on a rarely used espionage charge.
Prosecutors did not name the woman in court. As a result of that The Associated Press could not try to find her or people who could comment on her behalf.
Wei is one of two sailors based in California accused of providing sensitive military information to China — including details on wartime exercises, naval operations and critical technical material. Prosecutors have not said whether the two were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer as part of a larger scheme.
The Justice Department charged Wei, 22, under a Espionage Act statute that makes it a crime to gather or deliver information to aid a foreign government.
Both sailors have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have said Wei, who was born in China, was first approached by a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022 while he was applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and admitted to the officer that he knew the arrangement could affect his application. Even so, prosecutors say he provided the officer detailed information on the weapons systems and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault ships that act as small aircraft carriers.
In arguing against his release, Sheppard told the court on Tuesday that when Wei went home for Christmas to see his mother, who lives in Wisconsin, she was aware of her son’s arrangement. She also encouraged him to keep helping the Chinese intelligence officer because it might get him a job someday with China’s Communist party after he leaves the U.S. Navy, Sheppard said.
The AP asked Wei’s defense attorney Jason Conforti in an email if he could speak on behalf of Wei’s mother and provide a response to the prosecution’s allegations. The AP also asked if he could provide contact information for her. The attorney did not immediately respond to the email.
Sheppard told the court that the intelligence officer told Wei that he and the Chinese government were willing to fly him and his mother to China to meet them in person, and that Wei searched online for flights to China this spring.
Sheppard said the officer also told Wei to buy a computer and phone to pass the information, and that if Wei provided a receipt, the Chinese government would reimburse him for the expenses.
Conforti told the court that Wei is not a danger to the community and no longer has access to any military information.
Sheppard countered that Wei’s actions put thousands of sailors at risk by revealing sensitive information on Navy ships.
The judge ruled to keep him in federal custody without bond.
The indictment alleges Wei included as many as 50 manuals containing technical and mechanical data about Navy ships as well as details about the number and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise.
Sheppard said Wei has made $10,000 to $15,000 in the past year from the arrangement. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
The Justice Department also charged sailor Wenheng Zhao, 26, based at Naval Base Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, with conspiring to collect nearly $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, photos and videos involving Navy exercises, operations and facilities between August 2021 through at least this May.
The information included plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, which detailed the location and timing of naval force movements.