Jinchao Wei and Wenheng Zhao: 2 US Navy Sailors Arrested for Sharing Sensitive info With China

Two US sailors have been arrested on charges of sharing sensitive information with Chinese intelligence officers, media reports said.

According to a statement released on Thursday by the US Attorney for the Southern District of California, one of the sailors, Jinchao Wei, was arrested on Wednesday as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego -- one of the largest Navy installations in the Pacific, reports CNN.

The 22-year-old naturalised US citizen is accused of conspiring to send national defence information to a Chinese agent, a BBC report said.

USS Milius
USS Milius in South China Sea mission US Navy

Meanwhile, 26-year-old Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California, was arrested also on Wednesday on charges of accepting money for sensitive photos and videos.

It however remains unclear if the same Chinese agent is alleged to have contacted the pair.

The indictment against Wei was unsealed on Thursday and is separate from the charges against Zhao.

"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," CNN quoted Matt Olson, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for national security, as saying at a news conference on Thursday.

Prosecutors have said that Wei, who served as a machinist's mate on the USS Essex, allegedly entered into a "handler/asset" relationship with the Chinese agent beginning in February 2022.

Machinist's mates are a class of engineers, and are responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing ship equipment.

Representational image Pixabay

As part of that alleged arrangement, 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, the indictment says.

In return, Wei allegedly received thousands of dollars.

The indictment also indicated that Wei received US citizenship during this period, with the Chinese intelligence officer allegedly congratulating him on receiving citizenship on May 18, 2022.

Much of the information Wei allegedly sent to the Chinese officer was stored on restricted-access Navy computer systems that Wei was able to access because he had a security clearance.

Meanwhile, the indictment against Zhao alleges that between August 2021 and May 2023, he provided sensitive US military information -- including operational plans for a major military exercise in the Indo-Pacific -- to a person posing as a maritime economic researcher, who was actually a Chinese intelligence officer, CNN quoted the indictment as saying.

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According to prosecutors, Zhao, who was responsible for installing, repairing and servicing electrical equipment on US military installations, also had a security clearance, prosecutors say, and allegedly took photos of computer screens that displayed "operational orders of military training exercises" and provided them to the officer.

"We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith," said US Attorney Randy Grossman of 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 defence information in an ultimate act of betrayal, the US will aggressively investigate and prosecute."