Three senators warned the Pentagon on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, that China is making aggressive efforts to recruit current and recent members of the U.S. military to spy against the United States.

Three senators warned the Pentagon on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, that China is making aggressive efforts to recruit current and recent members of the U.S. military to spy against the United States. (U.S. Army)

Three senators warned the Pentagon on Tuesday that China is making aggressive efforts to recruit current and recent members of the U.S. military to spy against the United States.

“These actions by the [Chinese Communist Party] to gain insight on and exploit U.S. national security information and tactics present a current and ongoing threat to our national security,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a former Army captain, and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a former Navy captain, also signed the letter.

The senators are requesting a briefing from the Pentagon by Dec. 15 on the issue and what steps can be taken within the Defense Department to curb attempts by Chinese intelligence agents to meet and recruit U.S. service members, especially those who are leaving the military and looking for employment.

The letter follows a federal judge in the U.S. District of Western Washington setting a Jan. 2 trial date for a former sergeant in the military intelligence section of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., accused of stealing and then trying to offer top secret documents to China.

Joseph Daniel Schmidt, 29, was arrested Oct. 6 when he stepped off a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. A grand jury in Seattle had earlier charged him with felony possession of secret documents that he is accused of taking from his position with the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion at Lewis-McChord.

When Schmidt worked at Lewis-McChord, he would deal with communications from possible spies or others with knowledge of Chinese military and intelligence apparatus, according to court documents filed in his case. Schmidt “directly supported the Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense’s geographic combatant command that covers the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean region,” according to a court affidavit.

In a hearing on Monday, Schmidt was ordered to remain confined in a federal security facility until the trial. He faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of his two charges.

In another recent case, a sailor serving at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif., pleaded guilty to providing intelligence information to the Chinese in exchange for cash, according to the Justice Department.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, of Monterey Park, Calif., admitted to sending plans for a military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region to a Chinese intelligence agent for more two years — from August 2021 to May 2023.

Zhao worked in the Navy as a technician who installed and maintained electronic equipment at U.S. military bases. He would take photographs of computer display screens with “operational orders” for U.S. military units. He also sent installation blueprints and a diagram of a radar station at the U.S. military base in Okinawa.

He faces up to 20 years in prison and will be sentenced Jan. 8, federal officials said.

The three senators wrote an additional danger is service members who have key intelligence or technical skills and are contacted by the Chinese through intermediators with international job opportunities that can seem legitimate.

“The Chinese government has reportedly used companies that are both overtly and covertly backed by the Chinese Communist Party, including using deliberately innocuous and vague job descriptions and promising lucrative pay, to deceive veterans into working for the People’s Liberation Army,” they wrote.

The United States is not the only nation facing attempts to recruit former military personnel.

“Similar targeted recruiting of military veterans has also been exposed in the United Kingdom, where the Chinese have sought to hire former pilots to teach NATO aircraft and aerial doctrine,” according to the letter.

Shaheen is trying to amend the Senate version of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, an annual, must-pass policy bill for the Pentagon, to prohibit service members from employment with security and military services of the Chinese Communist Party.

The NDAA amendment was added after a recent Air Force report that the Chinese have sought to recruit service members specifically to work on areas of their expertise while in the U.S. military.

“We urge you to take all action that is immediately available to resist this targeted recruitment of veterans and separating service members,” the senators wrote.

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Gary Warner covers the Pacific Northwest for Stars and Stripes. He’s reported from East Germany, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and across the U.S. He has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

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