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Two U.S. Navy sailors were arrested on national security-related charges related to allegedly sending sensitive military information to the Chinese Communist Party, federal officials said on Thursday.
“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.
U.S. Navy Sailor Jinchao Wei, an active-duty machinist’s mate on the amphibious U.S.S. Essex assault ship stationed at Naval Base San Diego, was arrested on Wednesday for espionage-related charges upon arriving for work at the homeport of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet in California.
Wei, 22, was indicted for conspiracy to send national defense information to a Chinese intelligence officer who allegedly communicated with Wei using encrypted messages to provide photos, videos and documents about the U.S.S. Essex and other Navy ships as early as February 2022, according to U.S. officials. Wei allegedly disclosed the locations of various Navy ships, defensive weapons, technical and mechanical manuals to the intelligence officer in exchange for thousands of dollars over the course of the conspiracy. The sailor also allegedly passed along information about the number of U.S. Marines training during previously scheduled international maritime warfare exercises.
“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.
Authorities also arrested U.S. Navy Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, a sailor at Naval Base Ventura County in California, on a charge of conspiracy and receipt of a bribe, for allegedly transmitting sensitive military information to a Chinese official posing as a maritime economic researcher.
Zhao, 26, allegedly communicated with an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer from August 2021 through May 2023 by “surreptitiously recording” photographs and videos of classified military information and then transmitting to the foreign officer, authorities said.
According to a news release, the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao approximately $14,866 in exchange for classified controlled operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise involving Naval force movements, amphibious landings, and maritime operations and logistics in the Indo-Pacific Region. An indictment against Zhao further alleges the Petty Officer exchanged photographs of electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
“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.”
Zhao faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison if convicted.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said during a Thursday press briefing reported by Fox News that the threat from China “stands apart” on the world stage to the national security of the U.S.
“China is unrivaled in the audacity and the range of its malign efforts to subvert our laws,” Olsen said Thursday.