Chinese Agents Allegedly Paid 2 US Sailors for Info on Ships, Facilities, Exercises

An aerial photo of Naval Base San Diego
An aerial photo of Naval Base San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Austin Haist)

Two U.S. Navy sailors in California have been indicted on espionage charges by the Justice Department in cases that allege they provided classified documents and information to Chinese agents in exchange for money.

China "compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security," FBI Assistant Director Suzanne Turner said in a press release on the cases Thursday.

Jinchao Wei, a machinist mate assigned to the USS Essex in San Diego, was charged with four counts of conspiring and sending defense information to foreign powers. Wenheng Zhao, a petty officer 2nd class and construction electrician assigned to Naval Construction Battalion 3 in Port Hueneme, California, was charged with conspiracy and receiving a bribe.

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In Wei's case, court documents allege that in February 2022 he entered into a "handler/asset" relationship with a Chinese intelligence agent. Wei even went so far as to tell "another U.S. Navy sailor that he had been asked to spy" for China, his indictment claims.

Over the course of several months in 2022, Wei allegedly provided his handler more than 50 technical and mechanical manuals for various systems of the Essex and similar ships. Although he possessed a secret-level clearance, the indictment doesn't say whether Wei needed it to access the multitude of "export-controlled" manuals and documents that he passed to Chinese intelligence.

The indictment claims that Wei also passed along photos and videos of the Essex, the missions and locations of various Navy amphibious assault ships, and "what he believed was a weak point of the USS Essex."

In exchange, the indictment says Wei would often receive money. One batch of 30 documents netted the sailor $5,000. His handler remarked that at least 10 of those manuals were useful to him.

Amid the back and forth of documents and tasking, Wei's handler found time to congratulate Wei on being granted his U.S. citizenship on May 18, 2022.

Wei continued to talk to his handler into 2023, including in January when, according to the indictment, the person offered to fly him and his mother to China for an in-person meeting. The court document does not say whether Wei accepted the offer.

The Justice Department press release says Wei was arrested Wednesday as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego.

Zhao, who also held a secret-level clearance, is alleged to have offered sensitive and non-public information to a Chinese agent who told the sailor that he was a maritime economic researcher seeking information for investment decisions.

Specifically, his indictment claims that between August 2021 and May, Zhao passed along operation plans for an unnamed large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region that included the specific location and timing of Navy movements, amphibious landings, and other operations. He also passed along blueprints for the electrical system of a radar installation in Okinawa, Japan, as well as various PowerPoint, Word and PDF documents.

For his efforts, Zhao was paid $14,866 over many payments, according to the indictment.

Court documents do not make it clear whether Zhao is currently in custody, though a court filing last week says investigators requested he be held ahead of trial and that they considered him a serious flight risk.

The pair of cases are a departure from some of the previous cases of espionage brought by federal officials against sailors and other military service members because both Zhao and Wei allegedly actually communicated with and transmitted information to Chinese officials.

In the case of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe -- the couple found guilty of trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to Brazil -- the pair were communicating with federal agents. The couple was sentenced to 19 and 22 years, respectively.

Similarly, Maj. Jamie Lee Henry, and his wife, Anna Gabrielian, accused of trying to provide the personal health information of service members to Russia, were also caught when the FBI impersonated foreign officials. The pair is set to be retried in November after a mistrial was declared in their initial trial.

The Department of Justice said that, if convicted, Zhao faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. They did not provide a maximum penalty for Wei.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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