A former U.S. Army soldier who fled to Hong Kong has been charged with trying to deliver classified secrets to the Chinese government, according to federal court documents unsealed on Friday.
Joseph D. Schmidt, 29, who served in a military intelligence battalion in Washington State, was indicted in Seattle on two counts of violating the Espionage Act. He was arrested this week after flying from Hong Kong to San Francisco and appeared in federal court on Friday. Each count carries up to 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors accused Mr. Schmidt of trying to help the Chinese government after he finished active duty with the Army in January 2020. While Mr. Schmidt was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma, he supported the Indo-Pacific Command, which includes China, giving him access to sensitive materials.
The charges against Mr. Schmidt underscore the volume of national security secrets flowing to China, which has made aggressive efforts to recruit spies and steal technology to give it an economic and military edge over the United States, its primary rival.
In August, prosecutors charged Navy sailors with giving military secrets to China. In one of the most damaging cases, a former C.I.A. officer pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiring with Chinese intelligence agents. The former officer, who was suspected of helping China dismantle the agency’s informant network there, was sentenced to almost two decades in prison.
During Mr. Schmidt’s time in the Army, where he rose to the rank of sergeant, he showed an interest in China and visited in 2017. In applying for his visa, he stated that he wanted “to learn as much about China’s culture and history as I can, and so I plan to travel to China annually.” He did not appear to visit again until after he left the Army in January 2020, according to court documents.
That February, during a trip to Istanbul, Mr. Schmidt tried to contact the Chinese Consulate.
“I also am trying to share information I learned during my career as an interrogator with the Chinese government,” Mr. Schmidt wrote, according to court documents. “I have a current top secret clearance, and would like to talk to someone from the government to share this information with you if that is possible.”
He added: “My experience includes training in interrogation, running sources as a spy handler, surveillance detection and other advanced psychological operation strategies.”
While in Turkey, Mr. Schmidt searched online for phrases like “turkey extradition military defection,” “can you be extradited for treason” and “what is china’s intelligence agency.”
In March 2020, Mr. Schmidt traveled to Hong Kong, where he repeatedly tried to supply China with national security secrets, the court documents said.
That same month, he flew to Beijing and appeared to travel close to the headquarters of China’s intelligence service, known as the Ministry of State Security, according to his Apple Maps history, which the F.B.I. recovered from Mr. Schmidt’s iCloud account.
Prosecutors also said that he had a security token from his time in the military that could gain access to secure military computer networks and that he had offered the device to China.
In May 2020, Mr. Schmidt said in an email to his sister that he had left the United States because he disagreed with American policy.
“I don’t talk about it often, but I learned some really terrible things about the American government while I was working in the Army, and I no longer feel safe living in America or like I want to support the American government,” Mr. Schmidt wrote, according to court documents.
Mr. Schmidt had been trying to work in China but had trouble obtaining a visa to do so in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. In July 2020, the immigration authorities informed him that he had been “overstaying in Hong Kong” and denied an extension of his visitor status.
Later that month, he sent an email to a company affiliated with the Ministry of Science and Technology in China, saying he was in possession of classified information.
“I want to apply the knowledge to enhance the capability of your company and accelerate the development of your technologies,” prosecutors said he wrote.
The next month, Mr. Schmidt received a work permit from the Chinese government. It is not clear why Mr. Schmidt returned to the United States this week or whether he was aware that the F.B.I. was investigating him.
Seamus Hughes contributed reporting.