2 American Navy Personnel Accused of Sharing Confidential Military Intel with China

by Michael Nguyen

On Thursday, two U.S. Navy personnel, both stationed in California, were indicted on charges of sharing classified military data with China. This information included details about naval operations, wartime exercises, and crucial technical material.

Even though the sailors faced similar accusations of distributing sensitive intelligence to the Chinese, they were individual instances with no clear evidence if they were being influenced or financially rewarded by the same Chinese intelligence official as part of a larger plan. Federal authorities declined to reveal during a San Diego news conference whether the sailors were cognizant of each other’s activities.

The accused individuals have entered a not guilty plea in federal courts in Los Angeles and San Diego. They are to remain in custody pending their detention hearings, scheduled for August 8 in the same cities.

Over the years, U.S. officials have voiced concerns about the espionage threats allegedly posed by the Chinese government, which has led to several criminal cases against Beijing’s intelligence operatives, accused of purloining sensitive government and commercial data, including via illegal hacking.

These cases follow another recent incident of insider threat related to the U.S. military. The Justice Department apprehended a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman in April, accusing him of leaking classified military documents about Russia’s war in Ukraine and other sensitive national security issues on Discord, a widely-used social media platform among online gamers.

Officials argue these cases epitomize China’s blatant efforts to gain insights into U.S. military operations.

“Sensitive military information ended up in the hands of the People’s Republic of China due to the alleged crimes committed by these defendants,” stated U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. He added that the charges underscore the Chinese government’s commitment to acquiring information crucial to U.S. national defense, to use it for their benefit.

Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, was taken into custody on Wednesday while boarding the ship. He’s charged with sharing explicit details about the weaponry and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault vessels, functioning as miniature aircraft carriers.

Born in China, Wei was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022 when he was applying for U.S. citizenship, according to the prosecution. He knew this association could jeopardize his application but continued to provide photos and videos of Navy ships at the officer’s request, including the USS Essex, which can carry an assortment of helicopters such as the MV-22 Ospreys.

The indictment unsealed Thursday alleges that Wei provided up to 50 manuals detailing technical and mechanical data about Navy ships, plus information about the quantity and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise.

Wei reportedly continued sharing sensitive military data for a year and was commended by the Chinese officer when he received U.S. citizenship. U.S. Attorney Grossman said Wei betrayed his newly adopted country out of greed.

Wei was charged under an infrequently used Espionage Act statute that criminalizes collecting or distributing information to aid a foreign government. After pleading not guilty in San Diego, Wei was assigned a new public defender, who declined to comment post-hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard claimed that Wei continued passing information to Chinese intelligence until two days ago. Wei admitted to a fellow sailor in February 2022 that he was being recruited for what seemed like clear-cut espionage, according to Sheppard. Wei purportedly earned $10,000 to $15,000 over the past year from his arrangement with the anonymous Chinese intelligence officer. If convicted, Wei could face life imprisonment.

The Justice Department also indicted sailor Wenheng Zhao, 26, based at Naval Base Ventura County, north of San Diego. Zhao is accused of accepting almost $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer for U.S. naval exercise plans, operational orders, and photos and videos of electrical systems at Navy facilities between August 2021 and May 2023 at least.

The shared information included operational plans for a large U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, indicating the location and timing of naval force movements. Zhao is also alleged to have taken photos of electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

Zhao, who also uses the alias Thomas Zhao, allegedly recorded classified information covertly. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Zhao pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles, and the federal public defender assigned to him couldn’t be reached for comment by Big Big News.

U.S. officials have not specified whether they are investigating other U.S. sailors or if the investigation is still ongoing.

At the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, “We have clear policies and procedures in place for protecting sensitive information, and if those rules are violated, appropriate action will be taken.” He refrained from discussing any specifics of the cases.

U.S. Attorney Grossman reiterated that these charges demonstrate China’s unique threat to U.S. security. He emphasized that the U.S. would use all available resources to counteract this threat and deter China and those who breach the rule of law, thereby endangering national security.

This story was updated to correct the spelling of sailor Wenheng Zhao’s name. Baldor reported from Washington, and Big Big News writer Eric Tucker in Washington also contributed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Espionage Charges

Who are the individuals charged with providing sensitive military information to China?

Two U.S. Navy sailors, Jinchao Wei and Wenheng Zhao, stationed in California, have been charged with sharing classified military information with China.

What sensitive information was allegedly shared by the sailors?

The sailors allegedly shared information on naval operations, wartime exercises, and crucial technical material. This included detailed data on weaponry and aircraft aboard U.S. Navy ships, operational plans for large-scale U.S. military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, and photographs of electrical systems at Navy facilities.

Were these two cases related?

Though the sailors faced similar charges, these were separate cases. Federal authorities have not specified whether the sailors were aware of each other’s activities or whether they were being influenced by the same Chinese intelligence officer.

What were the legal consequences faced by the sailors?

Both Wei and Zhao pleaded not guilty and were ordered to be held until their detention hearings. If convicted, Wei could face life imprisonment, and Zhao could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

What have U.S. officials said about these cases?

U.S. officials have expressed concern about the alleged espionage threats posed by the Chinese government. They stated that these cases demonstrate China’s audacious attempts to acquire sensitive information on U.S. military operations. U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman emphasized that the U.S. would use all resources to counteract this threat and deter those who breach the rule of law and endanger national security.

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JohnDoe87 August 4, 2023 - 2:33 am

wow, this is crazy stuff!! i always thought our military info was safe… can’t believe what’s happening these days.

JennyB August 4, 2023 - 8:45 am

It’s so sad that these men betrayed their own country. They could’ve been heroes, but chose to be traitors instead 🙁

PatriotJoe August 4, 2023 - 8:50 am

Espionage? really?? This is straight out of a Hollywood movie. but sadly, it’s real and a threat to our nation. wake up america!

NavyMomma August 4, 2023 - 2:58 pm

My son’s in the Navy. This kind of news really scares me. Don’t they have better security measures?

Tech_Guru99 August 4, 2023 - 5:58 pm

So much for advanced tech n encryption! if sensitive info like this can be leaked then we’re in big trouble.


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