A U.S. Navy sailor faces charges of espionage after prosecutors discovered he was sending classified information to an intelligence officer working for the People’s Republic of China.
Jinchao Wei, 22, was arrested in San Diego as he boarded the amphibious assault ship USS Essex on Wednesday, where he worked as a machinist’s mate, a job that granted him a U.S. security clearance as well as access to sensitive material and restricted areas of the ship.
Prosecutors say he began passing photos, videos, and documents concerning Navy ships and their systems to China beginning in February 2022.
The information included that “regarding the defense and weapons capabilities of U.S. Navy ships, potential vulnerabilities of these ships, and information related to ship movement,” according to an indictment that was unsealed on Aug. 3.
Wei was paid somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 for this information.
“We have entrusted members of our military with tremendous responsibility and great faith,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman in a statement. “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.”
Wei was born in China and was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. In early conversations with his Chinese contact, Wei said that providing information would be considered spying and would impact his application. Regardless, within weeks, he was providing information to China.
The Chinese intelligence officer’s identity is known to the United States, but his name was not released publicly. In Wei’s indictment, the contact is referred to as Conspirator A.
Espionage charges are reserved for the most severe infringements of national security and carry a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Wei’s charges are the first ever filed in the district covering San Diego, and until this week, such charges had only been filed five times nationwide over the last six years.
Wei was also charged with conspiracy to export defense articles without a license and with the export of defense articles without a license, both of which separately carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Another sailor, Wenheng Zhao, who was stationed at Naval Base Ventura County, was charged on Wednesday with collecting bribes of nearly $15,000 from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, including blueprints for a radar system on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. Both sailors pleaded not guilty in federal courts this week.
Prosecutors have not commented on whether the cases are related. The arrests came after an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
Wei is being held until his detention hearing on Aug. 8 in a federal court.
“Wei, who as a service member was trusted with our nation’s secrets, is accused of selling out his country and betraying his oath to the Navy,” said Brice Miller, special agent in charge of the NCIS Office of Special Projects.
“NCIS will continue to leverage its unique law enforcement and counterintelligence authorities to aggressively root out those who put our nation’s warfighters at risk,” he continued. “We sincerely thank the FBI and the Department of Justice for their significant assistance to this complex investigation.”
Timeline of Wei’s Acts of Espionage
Around Feb. 14, 2022: Wei and the Chinese intelligence officer, identified as Conspirator A, begin contact. They discuss the types of materials Wei could supply, as well as the need to delete records of correspondence and not disclose their relationship to anyone.
Conspirator A asked for photos of ships moored in San Diego as well as photos and information about their movement, maintenance schedules. Wei, who was born in China, said doing so would be classified as spying and would impact his pending application for U.S. citizenship.
March 13, 2022: Wei sends multiple photos of the USS Essex to his conspirator.
April 21, 2022: Wei informs Conspirator A of the sea taskings and current location of several Navy amphibious assault ships (LHDs).
Late April, 2022: Wei and Conspirator A discuss the importance of electro mechanics on Chinese amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers.
May 15, 2022: Wei listed the weapons aboard the USS Essex and disclosed what he believed was a weak spot for the ship.
May 18, 2022: Wei receives his first payment. The amount was not released publicly, though prosecutors say he received between $10,000 and $15,000 total.
June 5, 2022: Wei sent approximately 30 technical and mechanical manuals outlining power, steering, and other systems in LHDs, as well as damage and casualty controls. The conspirator confirmed that at least 10 of these manuals were “useful” to China and contained information new to the country.
June 10, 2022: Wei receives $5,000 from Conspirator A.
June 14, 2022: Conspirator A requests information about the numbers of U.S. Marines involved in an upcoming international exercise – and their training – as well as photos of military hardware such as guns. Wei obliged and sent information on July 7.
Aug. 14, 2022: Wei sends 26 more manuals to Conspirator A.
Late August/early September, 2022: Wei receives $1,200 in payment.
Sept. 30, 2022: Wei receives another payment of an undisclosed amount.
Oct. 8, 2022: Wei sends information about damage control for LHDs, as well as the layout of the ship, including its berthing quarters and weapons systems.
Oct. 26, 2022: Wei receives an additional payment.
Nov. 13, 2022: Wei tells his contact that he will be receiving specialized fire training and offered to pass detailed information along afterward.
Nov. 24, 2022: Wei receives money from Conspirator A.
Dec. 1, 2022: Wei sends more export-controlled technical and mechanical manuals to China.
Jan. 9, 2023: Conspirator A requests information about the overhaul and upgrades planned for the USS Essex, asking Wei to film blueprints with his cell phone and emphasizing the need to understand any modifications to the ship’s flight deck.
Jan. 11, 2023: Wei receives additional money.
Jan. 21, 2023: Conspirator A offers to fly Wei and his mother to China so they can meet in person.
Feb. 1, 2023: Wei receives payment.
Feb. 5, 2023: Wei told his Chinese contact that LHDs are the Navy’s transportation tool for U.S. Marines and listed repairs underway for the USS Essex. He also disclosed mechanical problems on another ship that impacted its scheduled deployment.
February to June: Conspirator A made multiple money transfer to Wei, totaling about $2,100.
July 19, 2023: Wei’s indictment is filed.
Aug. 2, 2023: Wei is arrested.