Ex-Army sergeant accused of trying to hand defense secrets to China

A former U.S. Army sergeant was arrested Friday at San Francisco International Airport for allegedly trying to deliver defense secrets to Chinese authorities.

Joseph Daniel Schmidt, 29, an active duty soldier from 2015 to 2020, had access to top-secret and secret national security information, authorities said. After leaving active service, Schmidt sought to hand over Army intelligence training and practices, information about accessing Army computers and classified information to China, according to an affidavit.

“Members of our military take a sworn oath to defend our country and the Constitution,” acting U.S. attorney Tessa M. Gorman for the Western District of Washington said in a news release. “In that context the alleged actions of this former military member are shocking.”

It was not clear whether Schmidt had a lawyer. Schmidt faces one count of attempting to deliver national defense information and one count of retention of national defense information. Both are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In the weeks after leaving the active service, Schmidt traveled to China and Turkey, according to the affidavit. In Turkey, Schmidt emailed the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, offering to “share information I learned during my career.” The former sergeant said his experience “includes training in interrogation, running sources as a spy handler.”

Schmidt also conducted “internet research about defection from the United States and countries that do not have extradition treaties” with Washington, Brandon Tower, an FBI special agent involved in the case, wrote in the affidavit. Terms Schmidt searched on Google included “soldier defect, chinese consulate, iranian consulate” and “can you be extradited for treason.”

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After returning to the United States from his visit to Turkey, Schmidt traveled to Hong Kong and Beijing in March 2020. He resided in Hong Kong from then on, Tower wrote.

In the Chinese capital, Schmidt created a Microsoft Word document entitled “Humint AIT.” Humint appears to refer to human intelligence, or HUMINT, which is intelligence gathered from human sources and interpersonal contact. Schmidt was assigned to a human intelligence squad while serving in the Army’s 109th Military Intelligence Battalion, according to Tower.

The four-page Word document “discusses in detail various aspects of U.S. Army intelligence collection, dissemination, and training, including: the types of intelligence reports that are prepared and disseminated; methods of conducting interrogations; methods of conducting human source operations,” Tower wrote.

That information, while unclassified, still pertains to intelligence activities including covert actions, Tower added.

While in Beijing, Schmidt’s phone records also show that the device was in “close proximity” to the headquarters of China’s Ministry of State Security, the country’s intelligence agency.

During his three-plus years in China, Schmidt created Word documents entitled “High Level Secrets” and “Important Information to Share with Chinese Government.” The first document contained secret-level classified information, Tower wrote. Schmidt also took photos of Army-issued computer cards that allow access to the Army’s classified digital databases.

U.S. authorities did not elaborate on what they thought had motivated Schmidt’s alleged espionage efforts. But in May 2020, Schmidt emailed his sister, telling her he had left the United States “because of a disagreement with American policy,” according to Tower. The former Army sergeant adds in the email that he had “learned some really terrible things about the American government while I was working in the Army.”

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