Two US Navy members indicted for sending sensitive info to the PRC

Two US Navy members indicted for sending sensitive info to the PRC

August 5, 2023

Two US Navy service members have been arrested for transmitting sensitive military information to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

US Navy sailor Jinchao Wei, aka Patrick Wei, was arrested yesterday on espionage charges as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego, the home port of the Pacific Fleet. He was indicted for conspiracy to send national defence information to an intelligence officer working for the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Wei was an active-duty sailor on the amphibious assault ship the USS Essex, stationed at Naval Base San Diego. In his role as a machinist’s mate, Wei held a US security clearance and had access to sensitive national defence information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems. Amphibious assault ships like the Essex resemble small aircraft carriers and allow the US military to project power and maintain presence by serving as the cornerstone of the US Navy’s amphibious readiness and expeditionary strike capabilities.

According to the indictment, in February 2022, Wei began communicating with an intelligence officer from the PRC who requested that Wei provide information about the USS Essex and other Navy ships. Specifically, the Chinese intelligence officer tasked Wei with passing him photos, videos and documents concerning US Navy ships and their systems. The two agreed to hide their communications by deleting records of their conversations and using encrypted methods of communication.

A raft of information exchange ensued. At the request of the intelligence officer, between March 2022 and the present, Wei sent photographs and videos of the Essex, disclosed the locations of various Navy ships and described defensive weapons of the Essex. In exchange for this information, the intelligence officer paid Wei thousands of dollars over the course of the conspiracy.

The indictment further alleges that in June 2022, Wei sent the intelligence officer approximately 30 technical and mechanical manuals. These manuals contained export control warnings and detailed the operations of multiple systems aboard the Essex and similar ships, including power, steering, aircraft and deck elevators, as well as damage and casualty controls. The intelligence officer confirmed with Wei that at least 10 of those manuals were useful to him. For passage of those materials, the indictment alleges that Wei was paid $5 000.

These were some of the many alleged transactions between the two parties, which continued into 2023 when the intelligence officer requested information about the overhaul and upgrades to the Essex.

During the alleged conspiracy, the intelligence officer instructed Wei to gather US military information that was not public and admonished him not to discuss their relationship and to destroy any evidence regarding the nature of their relationship and their activities.

In a separate case, a US Navy service member, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, aka Thomas Zhao, 26, of Monterey Park, California, was arrested following an indictment by a federal grand jury, charging him with receiving bribes in exchange for transmitting sensitive US military information to an individual posing as a maritime economic researcher, but who was actually an intelligence officer from the PRC.

The indictment alleges that Zhao, who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme and held a US security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for violating his official duties as a US sailor by, among other actions, disclosing non-public sensitive US military information.

In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the Chinese military officer non-public and controlled operational plans for a large-scale US military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, which detailed the specific location and timing of Naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support.

The intelligence officer allegedly directed Zhao to conceal their relationship and to destroy evidence of the unlawful and corrupt scheme.

In exchange for the sensitive information Zhao provided – information Zhao accessed as a result of his position within the US Navy – the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao approximately $14 866, the indictment alleges.

If convicted, Zhao faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. 

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