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Two US Navy sailors have been arrested and charged with passing sensitive military information to the Chinese government in exchange for thousands of dollars in payments, prosecutors in California said on Thursday.
Jinchao Wei, who worked as a machinist’s mate at a naval base in San Diego, has been charged with sending photos and videos of an amphibious assault ship to an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer, as well as more than 50 technical and mechanical manuals and documents.
Wenheng Zhao, a petty officer who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, was separately charged with providing sensitive military data to “an individual posing as a maritime economic researcher, but who was actually an intelligence officer from the PRC”.
Wei, who is also known by the first name Patrick, was assigned to the USS Essex, an assault ship that resembles a small aircraft carrier but is capable of launching helicopters. He is alleged to have provided a Chinese agent with information on the “potential vulnerabilities” of Navy vessels, using encrypted communication methods, according to the unsealed indictment.
Zhao, also known by the first name Thomas, was based at a facility in central California, near a sea range in which missiles, freefall weapons and electronic warfare systems are developed and tested. He was responsible for installing, repairing and servicing electrical equipment.
After being asked by a Chinese agent to gather information on a large-scale military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, Zhao is alleged to have passed on photographs of diagrams and blueprints, as well as computer screens displaying operational orders, among other documents.
“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 Olsen, the assistant attorney-general of the DoJ’s National Security Division.
“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.”
A lawyer for Zhao did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Wei could not be immediately identified.
The FBI has in recent years pursued an increasing number of cases of suspected espionage by members of the US military and intelligence agencies. While some of the cases that have been prosecuted are not believed to have caused huge damage to the US, other high-profile cases have received significant attention because of the possible harm.
In one high-profile case, a former CIA operative named Jerry Lee — who was sentenced to prison for conspiring to spy for China — handed China’s Ministry for State Security the names of Chinese nationals who had been recruited by the CIA. People familiar with the case claim Lee’s actions helped Beijing identify, and in some cases round up and execute, Chinese nationals who were spying on China for the US.
Speaking recently at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA director Bill Burns said the agency was trying to recover lost ground because of the decimation of part of its spy network about a decade ago. “We’ve made progress and we’re working very hard over recent years to ensure that we have strong human intelligence capability to complement what we can acquire through other methods,” Burns said about operations in China.