2 U.S. Navy sailors arrested and accused of spying for China

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The USS Essex is shown in a Sept. 27, 2018 photo. One of two men charged with spying for China this week was assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, and was arrested Wednesday while boarding the ship. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman/U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

Two U.S. Navy sailors were charged Thursday with providing sensitive military information to China — including details on wartime exercises, naval operations and critical technical material. Both men pleaded not guilty in federal courts in San Diego and Los Angeles. They were ordered to be held until their detention hearings, which will take place Aug. 8 in those same cities.

U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California said the charges reflect that China “stands apart in terms of the threat that its government poses to the United States. China is unrivaled in its audacity and the range of its maligned efforts to subvert our laws.”

The cases are separate, and it wasn’t clear if the two were courted or paid by the same Chinese intelligence officer as part of a larger scheme. Federal officials at a news conference in San Diego declined to specify whether the sailors were aware of each other’s actions.

Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old sailor assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, was arrested Wednesday while boarding the ship. He is accused of passing detailed information on the weapons systems and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault ships that act as small aircraft carriers.

Prosecutors said Wei, who was born in China, was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer in February 2022 while he was applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and admitted to the officer that he knew the arrangement could affect his application. Even so, at the officer’s request, Wei provided photographs and videos of Navy ships, including the USS Essex, which can carry an array of helicopters, including the MV-22 Ospreys, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday.

The indictment alleges Wei included as many as 50 manuals containing technical and mechanical data about Navy ships as well as details about the number and training of Marines during an upcoming exercise.

Wei continued to send sensitive U.S. military information multiple times over the course of a year and even was congratulated by the Chinese officer once Wei became a U.S. citizen, Grossman said. He added that Wei “chose to turn his back on his newly adopted country” for greed.

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U.S. Attorney Randy S. Grossman for the Southern District of California, centre, speaks during a press conference Thursday in San Diego detailing the charges. (Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune/The Associated Press)

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The Justice Department charged Wei under a Espionage Act statute that makes it a crime to gather or deliver information to aid a foreign government.

After pleading not guilty in San Diego, Wei was assigned a new public defender who declined to comment following the hearing. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard told the judge that Wei had passed information to Chinese intelligence as recently as two days ago. He said Wei, who also went by the name Patrick Wei, told a fellow sailor in February 2022 that he was “being recruited for what quite obviously is [expletive] espionage.”

Sheppard said Wei has made $10,000 US to $15,000 in the past year from the arrangement with the unnamed Chinese intelligence officer. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.

The officer instructed Wei not to discuss their relationship, to share sensitive information and to destroy evidence to help them cover their tracks, officials said.

The Justice Department also charged sailor Wenheng Zhao, 26, based at Naval Base Ventura County, north of San Diego, with conspiring to collect nearly $15,000 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for U.S. naval exercise plans, operational orders and photos and videos of electrical systems at Navy facilities between August 2021 through at least this May.

The information included operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, which detailed the location and timing of naval force movements.

The indictment further alleges that Zhao photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

Prosecutors say Zhao, who also went by the name Thomas Zhao, also surreptitiously recorded information that he handed over. If convicted, Zhao could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

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At the Pentagon, Brig.-Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that, “I think we have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to safeguarding and protecting sensitive information. And so if those rules are violated, appropriate action will be taken.” He declined to discuss any specifics of the cases.

But the pair of cases also comes on the heels of another insider-threat prosecution tied to the U.S. military, with the Justice Department in April arresting a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman on charges of leaking classified military documents about Russia’s war in Ukraine and other sensitive national security topics on Discord, a social media platform popular with people playing online games.

Beijing rejects American claims as ‘information warfare’

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In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, on Feb. 4. The  appearance of a series of unidentified objects in the sky over a week that were subsequently shot down has prompted questions about why there seems to be a sudden rash of such incidents. (Chad Fish/The Associated Press)

The Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. was equipped to collect intelligence signals as part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries, the Biden administration said Thursday, citing imagery from American U-2 spy planes.

A fleet of balloons operates under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is used specifically for spying, outfitted with high-tech equipment designed to collect sensitive information from targets across the globe, the U.S. said. Similar balloons have floated over five continents, according to the administration.

The statement from a senior State Department official offered the most detail to date linking China’s People’s Liberation Army to the balloon that traversed the United States. The public details are meant to refute China’s persistent denials that the balloon was used for spying, including a claim Thursday that U.S. accusations about the balloon amount to “information warfare” against Beijing.

On Capitol Hill, the House voted unanimously to condemn the balloon program as a “brazen violation” of U.S. sovereignty. Republicans have criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for not acting sooner to down the balloon, but both parties’ lawmakers came together on the vote, 419-0.

In Beijing, before the U.S. offered new information, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning repeated his nation’s insistence that the large unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course and that the U.S. had “overreacted” by shooting it down.

“It is irresponsible,” Mao said. The latest accusations, he said, “may be part of the U.S. side’s information warfare against China.”

China’s defence minister refused to take a phone call from U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the balloon issue on Saturday, the Pentagon said. China has not answered questions as to what government department or company the balloon belonged to, or how it planned to follow up on a pledge to take further action over the matter.

The U.S. official said imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection” with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.

The State Department official said an analysis of the balloon debris was “inconsistent” with China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon that went off course. The U.S. is reaching out to countries that have also been targeted, the official said, to discuss the scope of the Chinese surveillance program.

The official provided details to reporters by email on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, which had already forced the cancellation of a planned visit to China earlier this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The official said the U.S. has confidence that the manufacturer of the balloon shot down on Saturday has “a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the” army. The official cited information from an official People’s Liberation Army procurement portal as evidence for the connection between the company and the military.

Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee on Thursday that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking, but could not publicly reveal the information. Select members of Congress were expected to learn more in a classified setting.

The balloon’s dayslong trajectory has spurred debate on Capitol Hill as to whether the U.S. should have forcibly removed it from American airspace sooner.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, at the appropriations subcommittee hearing, said she believed it could have been shot down in a remote area of Alaska before the public learned of its existence over Montana.

Biden previously said he wanted to shoot it down on Feb. 1, but that the Pentagon recommended otherwise, waiting until it was over water.

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At the same hearing, a U.S. official said it was discovered over Alaska on Jan. 28, reaching Montana on Jan. 31. In between, it travelled over Canada, said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defence for homeland defence.

North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) had custody of tracking it until it entered American airspace, Dalton said, and U.S. and Canadian officials were in regular contact.

Both Dalton and Lt.-Gen. Douglas Sims said that given the balloon was 60 metres tall, with a jetliner-sized payload and large metal components, it was safer to shoot down over water, which they also believed made recovery of debris more manageable.

Dalton said that shooting it down over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, as suggested by Collins, would have likely meant more prohibitive recovery efforts in terms of water depths and temperatures at this time of year.

Sims, the director of operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, also said that shooting it down over land could have set a bad precedent for any future incidents around the globe.

We thought before we shot,” he said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, testifying at the Senate foreign relations committee on Thursday, said the development reflects “Beijing’s growing coercion,” while also citing recent allegations China has set up unauthorized police stations in North America.

“We don’t seek another Cold War, but we do ask everyone to play by the same set of rules,” said Sherman.

This is not the first time the U.S. government has publicly called out alleged activities of the People’s Liberation Army. In a first-of-its-kind prosecution in 2014, the Obama administration Justice Department indicted five accused PLA hackers of breaking into the computer networks of major American corporations in an effort to steal trade secrets.

Using underwater drones, warships and inflatable vessels, the U.S. Navy is carrying out an extensive operation to gather all of the pieces of the massive Chinese suspected spy balloon a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.

In the newest images released by the Navy on Tuesday, sailors from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 are seen leaning over a rigid hull inflatable boat and pulling in broad swaths of the balloon’s white outer fabric and shell structure.

The head of U.S. Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, said Monday the teams were taking precautions to safeguard against the chance any part of the balloon was rigged with explosives.

The balloon was an estimated 60 metres tall and was carrying a long sensor package underneath, which VanHerck estimated was the size of a small regional jet.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday imposed a temporary security zone in waters off South Carolina during the military’s search for debris from the balloon.

The Navy is using ships to map and scan the sea floor for all remaining parts of the balloon, so U.S. analysts can get a full picture of what types of sensors the Chinese were using and to better understand how the balloon was able to manoeuver.

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters it was always his view that the balloon needed to be shot down and brushed off a question about whether the incident would weaken U.S-China relations.

“No. We made it clear to China what we’re going to do,” he said. “They understand our position. We’re not going to back off. We did the right thing and it’s not a question of weakening or strengthening — it’s reality.”

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the balloon’s flight over the United States had done nothing to improve already tense relations with China and dismissed Beijing’s contention it was for meteorological purposes.

The appearance of the Chinese balloon caused a political uproar in the United States and prompted the top U.S. diplomat, Antony Blinken, to cancel a Feb. 5-6 trip to Beijing that both countries hoped would steady their rocky relations.

“Once it came over the United States from Canada, I told the Defence Department I wanted to shoot it down as soon as it was appropriate,” Biden told reporters on the weekend. “They concluded … we should not shoot it down over land. It was not a serious threat and we should wait until it got across the water.”

Beijing condemned the shooting down of the balloon as an “obvious overreaction” and urged Washington to show restraint.

When asked on Tuesday whether China had asked the United States to return the debris from the downed balloon, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the balloon belonged to China.

“This balloon is not American. The Chinese government will continue to defend its legitimate rights and interests,” she said at a regular presser.

Mao also said she did not have more information on what equipment the balloon was carrying.

The balloon debris is scattered in waters that are about 15 metres deep, but stretch across an area 15 football fields long and 15 football fields across, VanHerck said.

U.S. officials have played down the balloon’s impact on national security, but say a successful recovery could give the United States insight into China’s spying capabilities.

Kirby said the United States was able to study the balloon while it was aloft and officials hope to glean valuable intelligence on its operations by retrieving as many components as possible.

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