Thursday, August 3, 2023
In two separate cases in the Southern and Central Districts of California, two U.S. Navy servicemembers were arrested for transmitting sensitive military information to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“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 Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’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.”
“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.”
United States v. Jinchao Wei, Southern District of California
A U.S. Navy sailor, Jinchao Wei, aka Patrick Wei, was arrested yesterday on espionage charges as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego, the homeport of the Pacific Fleet. He was indicted for conspiracy to send national defense information to an intelligence officer working for the People’s Republic of China.
The indictment, unsealed this morning, alleges that Wei, was an active-duty sailor on the amphibious assault ship the U.S.S. Essex stationed at Naval Base San Diego. In his role as a machinist’s mate, Wei held a U.S. security clearance and had access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems. Amphibious assault ships like the Essex resemble small aircraft carriers and allow the U.S. military to project power and maintain presence by serving as the cornerstone of the U.S. 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 U.S.S. Essex and other Navy ships. Specifically, the Chinese intelligence officer tasked Wei with passing him photos, videos and documents concerning U.S. Navy ships and their systems. The two agreed to hide their communications by deleting records of their conversations and using encrypted methods of communication.
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.
In June 2022, the intelligence officer requested that Wei provide information about the number and training of U.S. Marines during an upcoming international maritime warfare exercise. In response to this request, Wei sent multiple photographs of military equipment to the intelligence officer.
In August 2022, Wei sent an additional 26 technical and mechanical manuals related to the power structure and operation of the Essex and similar ships. The manuals contained warnings that this was technical data subject to export controls and that it was deemed “critical technology” by the U.S. Navy.
The indictment further alleges that in October 2022, Wei sent a technical manual to the intelligence officer describing the layout and location of certain departments, including berthing quarters and weapons systems. Specifically, Wei sent a weapons control systems manual for the Essex and similar ships. This manual contained export-controlled data that could not be exported without a license from the U.S. government. The indictment alleges that Wei knowingly violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations by transmitting this manual to the Chinese intelligence officer without obtaining a required license.
The intelligence officer continued to request information in 2023, including information about the overhaul and upgrades to the Essex. Specifically, he requested blueprints, especially those related to modifications to the flight deck. Wei provided information related to the repairs the Essex was undergoing, as well as other mechanical problems with similar vessels.
During the alleged conspiracy, the intelligence officer instructed Wei to gather U.S. 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.
“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.”
U.S. Attorney Grossman thanked the prosecution team and investigating agencies for their excellent work on this case.
The FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Parmley and Fred Sheppard for the Southern District of California and Trial Attorney Adam Barry of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting the case.
United States v. Wenheng Zhao, Central District of California
A U.S. Navy servicemember, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for violating his official duties as a U.S. sailor by, among other actions, disclosing non-public sensitive U.S. military information.
Beginning in August 2021 and continuing through at least May 2023, at the Chinese intelligence officer’s direction, Zhao allegedly violated his official duties to protect sensitive military information by surreptitiously recording, and then transmitting to the intelligence officer, U.S. military information, photographs and videos. According to the indictment, the Chinese intelligence officer told Zhao that the intelligence officer was a maritime economic researcher seeking the information for investment decisions.
In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the Chinese military officer non-public and controlled operational plans for a large-scale U.S. 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 indictment further alleges that in exchange for bribes, Zhao also photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
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 U.S. Navy – the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao approximately $14,866, the indictment alleges.
“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”
If convicted, Zhao faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The FBI Los Angeles Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division and NCIS investigated the case. IRS Criminal Investigation provided substantial assistance.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Annamartine Salick, Sarah Gerdes, Christine Ro and Kathrynne Seiden of the Terrorism and Export Crimes Section for the Central District of California are prosecuting this case. Trial Attorney Adam Barry of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section is providing substantial assistance.
An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.