In a significant security breach, two US Navy personnel, Jinchao Wei and Wenheng Zhao, were arrested for transmitting sensitive military information to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The incidents, which took place in the Southern and Central Districts of California, underline the persistent, aggressive efforts of the PRC to undermine Western democracies and threaten those who defend them.
Details of the Incident and What We Can Learn From It
The Case of Jinchao Wei
Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old machinist’s mate assigned to the USS Essex amphibious assault ship, was arrested on August 3 and charged with spying after he arrived for work at a naval base in San Diego, California. According to his indictment, Wei had exchanged classified information with a Chinese government contact just two days prior. He held a U.S. security clearance and had access to sensitive national defense information about ship weapons, propulsion, and desalination systems.
Wei had been handing off photos, videos, and technical manuals about US Navy ships and systems since February 2022. He allegedly told a fellow sailor he was being recruited by Beijing for what he described as “quite obviously fucking espionage.” In court, Assistant US Attorney Fred Sheppard told the judge that Wei received between $10,000 and $15,000 from his Chinese spymaster in the past year.
The Case of Wenheng Zhao
Wenheng Zhao, a 26-year-old construction electrician at the Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California, was also arrested on August 3, charged with conspiracy and receipt of bribes from an official. Zhao held a U.S. security clearance, and allegedly received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for sensitive US military information, photos, and videos beginning in August 2021. It is said that the Chinese intel officer posed as a maritime economic researcher in order to persuade Zhao to hand over the info in exchange for payment.
These incidents underscore the importance of vigilance and robust counterintelligence efforts within the military and other sensitive sectors. They also highlight the need for ongoing security awareness training to ensure that personnel understand the risks and consequences of espionage activities.
Threat Actor Profile
The threat actors in these cases were intelligence officers from the People’s Republic of China. The PRC has been consistently implicated in numerous cyber espionage activities against Western countries, particularly the United States. The PRC’s intelligence operations are known for their persistence, sophistication, and broad targeting of various sectors, including government, military, technology, and academia.
In these cases, the Chinese intelligence officers used traditional espionage tactics, such as recruitment of insiders and bribery, to gain access to sensitive information. They also employed modern communication methods, including encrypted chat systems, to facilitate their activities.
The China-Russia Connection
The relationship between China and Russia is evolving and has significant implications for global security. While they do not share a common expansionist ideology, realpolitik considerations are driving them together. Both are subject to American sanctions of various types and have found themselves in the crosshairs of Pentagon defense planners as a result of their assertive regional activities. Together, they dominate Eurasia and their strengths complement each other. One is a huge land mass with nuclear weapons and hydrocarbons, but it has a modest and shrinking population. The other is an economic superpower and second in conventional military power by most metrics.
While the relationship between Russia and China is not a formal military alliance, their cooperation in areas such as arms sales, military exercises, intelligence sharing, and force posturing against mutual adversaries is growing. This cooperation could potentially extend to sharing of cyber tools and techniques, further enhancing their capabilities in cyber espionage. For more on the China-Russia relationship, see this Brookings Institution article.
These incidents serve as a stark reminder of the ongoing threat posed by foreign intelligence services, particularly those of the PRC. They underscore the need for robust counterintelligence measures, continuous security awareness training, and the importance of maintaining a culture of security within sensitive sectors. The evolving relationship between China and Russia adds another layer of complexity to the global security landscape, potentially leading to increased sharing of tools, techniques, and intelligence, which could further enhance their cyber espionage capabilities.