By JULIE WATSON and LOLITA C. BALDOR
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two U.S. Navy sailors have been arrested and accused of providing sensitive military information to China — including details on wartime exercises, Naval operations and critical technical material, federal officials said Thursday.
Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, was arrested Wednesday on a charge related to espionage involving conspiracy to send national defense information to Chinese officials, according to the U.S. officials. The Justice Department also charged Navy service member Wenhen Zhao, 26, accusing him of taking bribes in exchange for giving sensitive U.S. military photos and videos to a Chinese intelligence officer between August 2021 through at least this May.
Federal officials spoke about the cases Thursday during a news conference in San Diego. The two sailors were charged with similar crimes, but they were charged in separate cases, and it wasn’t clear Thursday if the two were connected or if they were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer.
Federal prosecutors allege that Wei made contact with a Chinese government intelligence officer in February 2022, and at the officer’s request, provided photographs and videos of the ship he served on. The information he disclosed included technical and mechanical manuals as well as details about the number and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise, the Justice Department said.
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.
During the course of the relationship, the unnamed Chinese intelligence officer instructed Wei not to discuss their relationship, to share sensitive information, and to destroy evidence to help them cover their tracks, officials said. Federal officials allege Wei was paid thousands of dollars for sharing the information.
The USS Essex is an amphibious assault ship known as a Landing Helicopter Dock that has a full flight deck and can carry an array of helicopters, including the MV-22 Ospreys.
Zhao, the second officer charged, is accused of sharing information, including operational plans for a U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region. Prosecutors say Zhao also surreptitiously recorded information that he handed over.
Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.