Former Army Intelligence Collector Arrested for Espionage After Allegedly Trying to Share Secrets with China

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Members of the 109th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion conduct a change of command ceremony in 2019.
Members of the 109th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion conduct a change of command ceremony in 2019. (Sidney Lee/Joint Base Lewis-McChord photo)

A former Army soldier who specialized in intelligence collection has been arrested by federal officials on charges that he tried to offer classified information to China, court records show.

Joseph Daniel Schmidt, who, according to court documents, served in the Army between 2015 and 2020, "betrayed his promise and potentially placed our nation at risk in his attempts to pass national defense information to Chinese security services," Suzanne Turner, the assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, said in a statement released Friday.

Schmidt, 29, was arrested in San Francisco's airport after returning from China last week and was charged with attempting to deliver national defense information and retention of national defense information, according to the statement.

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The case comes after two Navy sailors were charged with espionage in August after allegedly passing information to Chinese officials. Couples in two other recent criminal cases were also charged with attempts to share U.S. secrets with foreign governments.

Investigators said Schmidt's Army career was mostly comprised of a posting to the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where he first served as a human intelligence collector before gaining rank and being made a team leader. Schmidt had risen to the rank of sergeant by the time of his arrest.

As part of his job, he was granted a top secret security clearance and given access to "sensitive compartmented information" -- one of the nation's most restrictive clearances.

Army spokesman Maj. Guster Cunningham told Military.com that Schmidt never deployed and had been awarded the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Good Conduct Medal, among other awards, during his service.

Court documents say that Schmidt's first foray into China was in 2017 while he was still on active duty. That winter, he traveled to the country while on leave, noting on his visa application that he planned to go every year and "many times over the course of the next ten years."

However, despite these intentions and two more leave requests in 2017 and 2018, he wouldn't make any more trips while in the Army. Instead, his next trip -- a four-day jaunt -- came in January 2020, just six days after he left the military. It was the first in a series of trips that investigators say were efforts to connect with Chinese security service officials.

The following month, in February 2020, the now-former soldier traveled to Istanbul, where he allegedly tried to make contact with the Chinese consulate.

"I also am trying to share information I learned during my career as an interrogator with the Chinese government," Schmidt wrote in an email that is cited in court documents. The note went on to say that he had "a current top secret clearance" and experience in interrogation training "running sources as a spy handler, surveillance detection, and other advanced psychological operation strategies."

Schmidt allegedly ran a number of Google searches around this time for details about the diplomatic missions of Russia, China and Iran, as well as phrases like "countries that don't extradite" and "can you be extradited for treason," court documents allege.

He also looked up an article on Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency employee who leaked U.S. secrets before fleeing to Russia.

"On Feb. 26, 2020, Schmidt created a Word document entitled, 'Important Information to Share with Chinese Government,'" the court documents say. It would eventually grow to 22 pages in length.

In early March 2020, Schmidt came back to the U.S. only to leave several days later for Hong Kong. He returned to his arrest and indictment on Friday.

During his time in China, Schmidt continued to create documents that, according to investigators, showed his intent to share military secrets with Chinese officials.

"On or about March 16, 2020, Schmidt created a Word document entitled 'High Level Secrets,'" that was 23 pages long and discussed various aspects of human intelligence training and collection, prosecutors are alleging, according to the court record.

Army officials told investigators that both documents contained information that would be considered classified at the "secret" level -- a midlevel classification.

During his stay in China, Schmidt created more documents and reached out to companies that are affiliated with the Chinese government in an effort to pass on information like his encryption keys and ID badge.

However, much of that information appears to have been relatively trivial and unclassified. For example, court documents note that one such report -- in which Schmidt describes how Google Earth could be used to find U.S. military bases -- was unclassified despite his belief that it was "an invaluable look in discovering adversary locations and activities."

Schmidt is just the latest in a string of service members and veterans to be indicted for attempting or succeeding in passing on secrets to China and other countries.

In August, federal prosecutors announced that they had arrested two U.S. Navy sailors in California on espionage charges after they allegedly provided classified documents and information to Chinese agents in exchange for money.

Both sailors, Jinchao Wei and Wenheng Zhao, successfully managed to pass controlled information to China in exchange for money. In Wei's case, court documents allege that he entered into a formal "handler/asset" relationship with a Chinese intelligence agent and even told "another U.S. Navy sailor that he had been asked to spy" for China.

However, unlike that pair of cases, court documents don't say anything about Schmidt's outreach as being answered or returned by Chinese officials.

In fact, by the fall of 2020, Schmidt began to run into issues with immigration authorities in Hong Kong and had overstayed his visitor visa. As a result, his case bears more resemblance to a pair of recent incidents where individuals with access to controlled information were actually feeding it to federal agents.

One of these incidents was the case of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe -- a couple who were found guilty of trying to sell nuclear submarine secrets to Brazil -- and who were sentenced to 19 and 22 years, respectively.

Also, Maj. Jamie Lee Henry, and his wife, Anna Gabrielian, were accused last fall of trying to provide the personal health information of service members to Russia. The pair is set to be retried in November after a mistrial was declared in their initial trial.

In the cases of both couples, federal agents were impersonating officials from the respective countries.

According to an email Schmidt sent to his sister a few months after arriving in China, in May 2020, his efforts to turn spy for the Chinese were due to "a disagreement with American policy."

"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," the former soldier wrote in the email cited by court documents.

The Justice Department said in its statement that both of the charges Schmidt faces are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on X @ktoropin.

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