Two Navy sailors were arrested in southern California for allegedly “transmitting sensitive military information” to agents of China, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.
A sailor authorities identified as Jichao Wei, also known as Patrick Wei, was arrested as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday morning, a Justice Department news release says. A second sailor, Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, or Thomas Zhao, 26, of Monterey Park, California, served at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, near Oxnard north of Los Angeles.
“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 [People’s Republic of China] government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Wei was indicted for conspiracy to send national defense information to an intelligence officer working for China, Thursday’s news release says. The Justice Department did not clarify if the investigations and charges were related. If convicted, Wei faces life in prison, Zhao up to 20 years.
“The PRC compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security,” said Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.
USS Essex Documents and Technical Manuals
While Wei was stationed on the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Essex as a machinist’s mate, he had access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion, and desalination systems, the news release says. Prosecutors have accused Wei of communicating with an intelligence officer from China who asked him for photos, videos, and documents of various shipboard systems starting in February 2022. Wei allegedly communicated using encrypted communication, erasing messages as he went, according to the Justice Department.
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Prosecutors claim that Wei sent information on the defensive weapons of the Essex, receiving thousands of thousands of dollars over the course of the conspiracy.
The indictment states that in June 2022, Wei allegedly sent the intelligence officer approximately 30 technical and mechanical manuals for systems on the Essex and similar ships, including power, steering, aircraft, and deck elevators, as well as damage and casualty controls. The agent paid Wei $5,000 for those documents, the DOJ said.
In June 2022, Wei allegedly sent information on Marines training in an international maritime warfare exercise.
In August 2022, Wei also allegedly sent an additional 26 technical and mechanical manuals related to the power structure and operation of the Essex and similar ships, some of which were deemed “critical technology” by the U.S. Navy.
In October 2022, Wei sent a technical manual to the intelligence officer describing the layout and location of certain departments, including berthing quarters and a weapons control systems manual for the Essex.
In 2023, Wei provided information related to the repairs of the Essex and information on mechanical problems with similar ships.
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.
Plans for pacific operations
Similarly, the charges against Zhao also alleged that the petty officer received money from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, the news release says.
From August 2021 to at least May 2023, Zhao allegedly sent information, photographs, and videos to a Chinese intelligence officer who had told the American sailor that he was a maritime economic researcher seeking the information for investment decisions, according to prosecutors.
Zhao allegedly sent the agent 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.
Prosecutors have also accused Zhao of photographing electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
In all, the Chinese agents 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.”
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