Two US Navy sailors arrested on suspicion of selling secret military information to China

(Nov. 13, 2019) Construction Electrician 3rd Class Wenheng Zhao, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3, uses an M4 rifle to defend an entry control point from a simulated enemy attack during NMCB-3’s field training exercise (FTX) at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Lopez/Released)

Nathan Solis
Los Angeles Times
(TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Two U.S. sailors have been arrested and indicted on suspicion of accepting bribes in exchange for passing sensitive military information to intelligence officers from China, federal authorities announced Thursday.

The sailors were in direct contact with Chinese officers who paid them thousands in bribes to provide national defense information, including technical manuals on assault ships, critical technology and radar systems, according to officials with the U.S. attorney’s offices in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Jinchao Wei, 22, and Wenheng Zhao, 26, are naturalized American citizens who were born in China and were communicating with intelligence officers in China, though it’s unclear if they were speaking to the same intelligence officer, prosecutors said. Zhao is a resident of Monterey Park, according to authorities.

“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 Olsen of the Justice Department’s national security division said during a news conference.

“These arrests are a reminder of the relentless, aggressive efforts of the People’s Republic of China to undermine our democracy and threaten those who defend it,” Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s counterintelligence division said in a statement that accompanied the indictment announcement.

Wei, also known as Patrick and who was stationed on the USS Essex in San Diego, was arrested when he arrived for work at the naval base there Wednesday, authorities said. Wei worked as a machinist’s mate and had access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems.

The Essex resembles an aircraft carrier, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release. He is accused of transmitting information over encrypted channels to a Chinese official. Prosecutors allege he was approached in February 2022 by the Chinese officer, who was interested in the workings of the Essex. Wei provided the officer technical and mechanical manuals that detailed the operations of multiple systems on the Essex and similar ships, including power, steering, aircraft and deck elevators, according to prosecutors.

The Chinese officer confirmed to Wei that at least 10 of the documents were useful to him and paid him $5,000, according to court documents. Wei continued to send documents and photographs describing the layout of the Essex and location of certain departments on the ship.

The Justice Department alleges that Wei knowingly violated the the International Traffic in Arms Regulations by transmitting a technical manual without obtaining a required license. Wei was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer while his application to become a U.S. citizen was pending, prosecutors said. He also admitted to this officer that he knew this activity would be viewed as spying and could affect his pending citizenship application but did not report the offer, according to court documents.

In a separate investigation, Zhao, who is also known as Thomas and was based out of Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, was also arrested Wednesday and accused of similar charges.

Zhao is accused of recording and sharing the specific location and timing of naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, beginning in August 2021 and continuing through May, prosecutors said.

Zhao is also suspected of taking photographs of radar systems in Okinawa, Japan, at the naval base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, officials said.

Zhao worked as a construction electrician and was responsible for installing and repairing electrical equipment on U.S. military installations, according to prosecutors. He had access to unclassified information and information on the Navy’s operation security, but he was not allowed to transmit that information and was required to report suspicious incidents, including attempts by non-Navy personnel who sought that sensitive information.

He had a security clearance and was able to access material up to and including the secret level, according to court documents.

“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,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement. “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 is accused of sharing information about a “large scale” military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region throughout August 2021. From November 2021 through March, Zhao received bribes in Chinese currency, prosecutors said, including a year-end bonus.

“The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to counter threats from China and to deter those who aid them in breaking our laws and threatening our national security,” Olsen said.

Stacey Moy, special agent with the FBI’s San Diego field office, said the announcement is not an indictment of Chinese or ethnically Chinese American people.

“This is solely based on individuals, regardless of national origin or ethnicity, conducting criminal activity, violating the rule of law,” Moy said during the news conference.

Bryce Miller, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, said the acts carried out by the sailors threatens Navy “readiness and capabilities.”

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