US Navy sailors accused of spying for China in exchange for money

Two US Navy sailors have been arrested on charges of sharing sensitive military information with Chinese intelligence officers in exchange for money, the Justice Department announced on Thursday. The sailors, Jinchao Wei and Wenheng Zhao, allegedly accessed restricted Navy computer systems, took photos and videos of classified documents and equipment, and sent them to their Chinese handlers.

US Navy sailors

Wei’s alleged espionage activities

Wei, a 22-year-old machinist’s mate on the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship based in San Diego, California, allegedly entered into a “handler/asset” relationship with a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022. According to the indictment, Wei sent photos and videos of the Essex and other Navy ships to the Chinese officer, as well as dozens of technical and mechanical manuals relating to the ships’ layouts and weapons systems. In return, Wei allegedly received thousands of dollars from the Chinese officer.

The indictment also indicates that Wei received US citizenship during this period, with the Chinese intelligence officer allegedly congratulating Wei on receiving citizenship on May 18, 2022. The Chinese officer also instructed Wei not to discuss their relationship, to share non-public information with the agent, and to destroy evidence to help them cover their tracks.

Zhao’s alleged bribery scheme

Zhao, a 26-year-old electrician’s mate at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California, was also charged with conspiracy and bribetaking in connection with providing sensitive US military information to a Chinese intelligence officer. Zhao allegedly gave the officer photos and videos of operational orders of military training exercises in the Indo-Pacific region, including a major exercise involving US and allied forces. Zhao also allegedly recorded information that he handed over to the officer.

Zhao allegedly received nearly $15,000 from the Chinese officer for his services. Zhao also had a security clearance that allowed him to access classified information on Navy computer systems.

The charges and penalties

The two sailors were charged with similar crimes, but they were charged as separate cases and it was not clear if they were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer. The Justice Department charged Wei under a rarely-used Espionage Act statute that makes it a crime to gather or deliver information to aid a foreign government. Zhao was charged with conspiracy and bribetaking under another statute that prohibits public officials from receiving anything of value for performing an official act.

Both Wei and Zhao face up to life in prison if convicted of the charges. They are currently in federal custody and are expected to appear in court soon.

The reaction and implications

The arrests of Wei and Zhao have raised serious concerns about the security of US military secrets and the threat posed by China’s espionage activities. Matt Olson, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for national security, said at a news conference that “the charges demonstrate the (People’s Republic of China’s) determination to obtain information that is critical to our national defense by any means, so it can be used to their advantage.”

Olson also praised the cooperation of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the FBI in uncovering and investigating the cases. He said that the Justice Department will continue to pursue and prosecute anyone who betrays the trust of the American people and compromises national security.

The arrests of Wei and Zhao come amid rising tensions between the US and China over various issues, including trade, human rights, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. The US has accused China of engaging in widespread cyberattacks, intellectual property theft, and covert influence operations against US interests. China has denied these allegations and accused the US of interfering in its internal affairs and undermining its sovereignty.

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