February 21, 2024

2 U.S. Navy Sailors Charged With Spying for China

Two Navy sailors in Southern California were arrested and accused of providing military secrets and sensitive information to Chinese intelligence officers, according to a pair of federal indictments unsealed on Thursday.

Jinchao Wei, known as Patrick Wei, 22, was charged with spying for the Chinese under the Espionage Act. Mr. Wei serves aboard the Essex, an amphibious assault ship moored at Naval Base San Diego, which is the home of the Pacific Fleet. As a machinist’s mate, investigators said, he had clearance that gave him access to sensitive national security information.

The second sailor, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas, was charged with taking bribes in exchange for providing sensitive U.S. military information to a Chinese intelligence officer posing as an economic researcher. Mr. Zhao worked at the Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, which is home to several aircraft squadrons and the service’s naval construction battalions in the Pacific.

The charges appear to reflect the Chinese government’s deep interest in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet and other aspects of the American military’s operations in that region, part of a broader effort by China to steal American corporate and national security secrets. Already, the extent of Chinese spying, including cyberbreaches, has prompted top national security officials to sound the alarm. In testimony before Congress this year, the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, warned, “There’s no country that presents a more significant threat to our innovation, our ideas our economic security, our national security than the Chinese government.”

In a news conference in San Diego on Thursday, Randy S. Grossman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said that Mr. Wei, 22, a naturalized citizen, chose to “betray his newly adopted country,” rather than report inappropriate contact from a Chinese intelligence officer.

Mr. Grossman said the section of the Espionage Act under which Mr. Wei was charged has been used just a handful of times in the past few years, underscoring the seriousness of the crime. The betrayal was particularly acute in San Diego, he added.

“San Diego indeed has a storied history with the United States Navy,” he said. “That’s why this conduct is personal for San Diego, and we will not stand for it.”

Mr. Wei began working for the Chinese in early 2022, prosecutors said. In serving as a machinist’s mate for the Navy, he is an engineer trained to operate and maintain a range of equipment, from small pumps to refrigerators to large machinery for propelling a ship through the ocean.

He provided his handler with the defense and weapons abilities of U.S. warships as well as their vulnerabilities, communicating via encrypted platforms. In one instance in June last year, the Chinese intelligence officer asked Mr. Wei for information about “the number and training of U.S. Marines during an upcoming international maritime warfare exercise.”

In another instance, Mr. Wei received $5,000 for 30 technical and mechanical ship manuals, the court filing said. Some of the information that Mr. Wei provided to the Chinese was deemed “critical technology” by the U.S. Navy.

In a news release, the Justice Department said that warships like the Essex serve as the “cornerstone of the U.S. Navy’s amphibious readiness and expeditionary strike capabilities.”

Mr. Wei was evidently seeking U.S. citizenship while working clandestinely with the Chinese, according to the indictment, with his handler congratulating Mr. Wei when he received it.

In the second indictment, Mr. Zhao, who is from Monterey Park, worked at an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer’s direction from August 2021 through at least May this year.

Among the sensitive details he sent the officer were electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan, as well as operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region. Those plans, prosecutors said, detailed the specific location and timing of naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support.

Mr. Zhao was not charged under the Espionage Act, but a Justice Department news release says he faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Both men earned thousands of dollars secretly working for the Chinese, prosecutors say.

The arrests come a year after the Justice Department ended a contentious initiative begun under the Trump administration to fight Chinese national security threats that critics said unfairly targeted professors of Asian descent and added to a surge in anti-Asian sentiment.

In the news conference, Stacey Moy, the top F.B.I. agent in San Diego, told reporters that he wanted to emphasize that “this is not and will never be an indictment of the Chinese people or ethnically Chinese Americans.”

The men were slated to appear on Thursday before federal judges in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and San Diego.

John Ismay contributed reporting.

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