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Two U.S. Navy Sailors Indicted for Selling Secrets to China

Essex
One of the defendants sold information on the layout and weapons systems of the amphib USS Essex (above) (USN file image)

Published Aug 3, 2023 6:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two U.S. Navy sailors have been indicted for selling useful military secrets to Chinese intelligence officers for little pay, according to federal prosecutors. 

In two separate indictments unsealed Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged Machinists' Mate Jinchao (Patrick) Wei and Petty Officer Wenheng (Thomas) Zhao with transferring sensitive Navy documents and information to Chinese intelligence officers.

Wei and Zhao were based at different locations and acted independently, but - according to the indictments - both had a relationship with a Chinese handler, and both transferred military secrets to the U.S. Navy's "pacing threat." They allegedly sold this information and broke their oaths of service in return for sums in the low five figures or less. 

“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 government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to counter threats from China and to deter those who aid them in breaking our laws and threatening our national security.”

In the first indictment, prosecutors charged Machinists' Mate Jinchao (Patrick) Wei with conspiring to send information about the amphib USS Essex to Chinese intelligence. Wei held a security clearance and had access to information about the ship's propulsion and weapons systems. In February 2022, according to DOJ, Wei began working with a Chinese intelligence officer. The agent wanted information about Essex's systems, along with sensitive schedules for the movements of other Navy vessels. Wei allegedly sent him photos and videos of the Essex, about 30 restricted technical manuals - including the manuals for her propulsion, steering system, elevators and casualty control systems - along with descriptions of the amphib's defensive weapons systems, according to the indictment. 

This information could have high value for a wartime aggressor, as well as utility for reverse-engineering the ship's technology. Wei allegedly transferred these materials for a price of just $5,000.

According to prosecutors, he later provided Chinese intelligence with another 27 technical manuals for Essex, including the weapons control system manual and a manual with the layout and location of departments on the ship. Exporting this manual would violate the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). 

Wei's Chinese intelligence handler instructed him to delete evidence of their conversations and transactions, and Wei agreed, according to DOJ. 

Wei has been indicted on a conspiracy charge.

"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," said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Randy Grossman.

The second indictment concerns Petty Officer Wenheng (Thomas) Zhao, who was stationed at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme. Zhao was approached by a "maritime economic researcher" from China in 2021, according to the indictment, and this individual asked for information on Navy systems and ship movements for purposes of "market research." The researcher was in fact a Chinese intelligence officer, DOJ said. 

Zhao allegedly sent this agent sensitive planning information on large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific, including the positions and timing of Navy vessel movements. He also allegedly took and transferred photos of blueprints for a radar system at the U.S. base in Okinawa. 

In return for this valuable and sensitive information, and for taking the risk of prison time, Zhao was compensated with payments totaling less than $15,000. If convicted on counts of bribery and conspiracy, Zhao could face a sentence of up to 20 years. 

The U.S. Navy has dealt with bribery cases before, and previously-convicted officers have also sold military secrets at low prices. The long-running GMDA "Fat Leonard" corruption scandal involved the sale of Navy warship movement and bidding information in exchange for bribes valued in the low four figures. These corrupt payouts yielded GDMA about $36 million in illegal overcharge proceeds, which GDMA retained (except for the price of entertainment and gifts for corrupt officers).