Two American Navy servicemen with alleged links to China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have been taken into custody on national security charges, U.S. officials said on Aug. 3. The arrested sailors are: Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old based in San Diego on the USS Essex, and Wenheng Zhao.
“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 PRC government,” said Matthew G. Olsen, the assistant attorney general of the U.S. justice department’s national security division.
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Charges against Jinchao Wei
Wei was taken into custody on Aug. 2 on charges pertaining to espionage. The accusations against him relate to an alleged conspiracy to “transmit national defense information” to Chinese authorities, federal officials said at a news conference in San Diego on Aug. 4.
The indictment alleges that in February 2022, Wei made contact with an intelligence officer of the Chinese government. As per the officer’s request, Wei allegedly provided photographs and videos of the ship he served on, as well as technical manuals, mechanical details, and information about the number and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise.
Due to Wei’s actions, “sensitive military info ended up in the hands of the People’s Republic of China,” Olsen said, noting that the leaked information included details on wartime exercises, logs, and critical technical material from the U.S. navy.
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Interestingly, Wei, who was born in China, was reportedly approached by the Chinese officer while he was seeking U.S. citizenship. The officer even congratulated Wei upon attaining US citizenship.
Randy Grossman, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, noted that, “Wei admitted to his handler that he knew this activity would be viewed as spying and could affect his pending citizenship application. Rather than report the contact, which he was trained to do, he chose instead to hide it.” Grossman’s comment suggests Wei knowingly conspired with his Chinese handler — possibly motivated by greed or other reasons — betraying his newly adopted country.
Charged under a seldom-invoked statute of the Espionage Act, Wei faces serious consequences for his alleged actions. This law criminalizes gathering or delivering information to aid a foreign government, and carries a potential fine of up to $5 million and the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison.
During the alleged relationship, the Chinese intelligence officer advised Wei not to discuss their association, share nonpublic information, and urged him to destroy any evidence of their communications to help cover their activities.
U.S. officials also noted that Wei was serving on the USS Essex — an amphibious assault ship. Also known as a Landing Helicopter Dock, the ship boasts a full flight deck and is capable of housing numerous helicopters and warplanes, including the MV-22 Ospreys.
Allegations against Wenheng Zhao
The Justice Department, in a separate action, announced charges against another sailor, Wenheng Zhao. Zhao is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for handing over sensitive U.S. military photos and videos to a Chinese intelligence officer.
In addition, Zhao is being accused of divulging details that include strategies for a U.S. military drill in the Indo-Pacific region. Prosecutors allege that Zhao also “covertly recorded data” that he subsequently passed on.
Over a two-year period, Zhao allegedly sent encrypted communications and blueprints, including photographs of an operational center in Okinawa, Japan, to China, in exchange for $14,866.
“By sending the sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, Mr. Zhao betrayed his sacred oath to defend our country and uphold the Constitution. In short, Mr. Zhao chose a path of corruption and in doing so, he sold out his colleagues at the U.S. Navy,” stated Martin Estrada, U.S. attorney for the central district of California.
Although the sailors were charged with similar crimes, their cases are considered separate, and will be tried as such. As of Aug. 4, it was unclear whether the same Chinese intelligence officer was involved in both cases.