Two United States Navy sailors in California have been arrested for allegedly sharing sensitive military information with Chinese officials, including details on Naval operations and wartime exercises.
The U.S. Justice Department said 22-year-old Jinchao Wei — who goes by Patrick — was arrested Wednesday on espionage charges as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego. Federal officials said they also arrested 26-year-old Wenhen Zhao, of Monterey Park, California, for allegedly accepting bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for sensitive military information.
Federal officials announced the charges Thursday at a press conference in San Diego. Both sailors were charged with similar crimes, but it's unclear if the two were connected and both were charged in separate cases.
Federal prosecutors allege that Wei, while working on the U.S.S. Essex stationed at Naval Base San Diego, began communicating with a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022. At the officer's request, Wei passed along photos, videos and documents concerning U.S. Navy ships and their systems, according to the indictment.
During the course of their relationship, Wei allegedly accepted $5,000 in exchange for dozens of technical and mechanical manuals, 10 of which the intelligence officer found useful. Wei was also instructed not to discuss their relationship and destroy any evidence to cover their tracks, officials said.
“We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. “Our nation’s safety and security are in their hands. 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.”
Zhao, the second sailor charged, also allegedly began communicating with a Chinese intelligence officer in August 2021, but it's unclear if it was the same person Wei shared information with.
According to the indictment, that officer posed as a maritime economic researcher and paid Zhao approximately $14,866 in exchange for photographs and videos of sensitive information, including electrical diagrams and blueprints for a U.S. radar system stationed in Japan. Zhao, while working at Naval Base Ventura County, also allegedly sent the Chinese officer non-public and controlled operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region.
“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,” said Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The PRC compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security. The FBI and our partners remain vigilant in our determination to combat espionage, and encourage past and present government officials to report any suspicious interactions with suspected foreign intelligence officers.”
If convicted, Zhao faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while Wei faces up to life in prison.
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