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Ex-U.S. Army sergeant charged with trying to pass secrets to China

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building is seen in Washington in June.
Alex Brandon
The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building is seen in Washington in June.

A former U.S. Army sergeant who worked in military intelligence and carried a top secret security clearance was arrested Friday and charged with trying to pass sensitive American defense information to China.

Federal agents took 29-year-old Joseph Daniel Schmidt into custody at the San Francisco airport this morning, officials said. He faces one count of trying to deliver national defense information and one count of retention of national defense information.

Court papers say Schmidt served in the U.S. Army from 2015 to 2020, primarily with the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He held a top secret security clearance, had studied Mandarin and worked as a team leader in spying operations.

Despite his background and training in espionage tradecraft, the details of the investigation suggest that Schmidt did not follow that training in his alleged efforts to pass secrets to China.

Those efforts began, court papers say, just over a month after Schmidt left the military when he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey. Investigators say his internet search history at the time includes searches for how to defect, including searching "countries that dont extradite" and "can you be extradited for treason."

While in Istanbul, Schmidt sent an email from his Gmail account to the public email address for the Chinese Consulate there. According to court papers, Schmidt introduces himself, explains that he has a top secret U.S. government security clearance and experience in surveillance detection and running spies. He allegedly offers to share his knowledge with the Chinese government, and asks for a face-to-face meeting.

Two days later, Schmidt allegedly created a Word document entitled, "Important Information to Share with Chinese Government." The document, which investigators recovered from Schmidt's Apple iCloud account, was later assessed by the Army to contain classified information.

In March 2020, Schmidt allegedly traveled to Hong Kong and then Beijing. While in the Chinese capital, he conducted several Google searches, including "What Do Real Spies Do and How are they Recruited—Reddit," as well as "Espionage—Reddit."

Court papers say Schmidt went on to create more Word documents, again saved to his iCloud account, that contained national defense information, including details on how U.S. Army intelligence training.

One of the alleged documents was 23 pages long and entitled "High Level Secrets." It includes the passage: "My name is Joseph Schmidt. I'm a human intelligence collector that just got out of the military. I'm trying to send some information to the Chinese government about the United States Intelligence Services."

The document also allegedly includes information about Schmidt's training and experience in espionage and U.S. intelligence tradecraft.

The next day, a screenshot recovered from Schmidt's iCloud account shows his phone's location blocks away from the Beijing headquarters of China's security ministry.

It's unclear from the court papers whether he entered the building, or whether Chinese officials ever engaged with Schmidt.

In May 2020, Schmidt allegedly sent an email to his sister in which he says he left the U.S. because of "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," he wrote, according to court papers. "I don't plan on going back ay time, except maybe once to sell my house."

Court papers say Schmidt has remained in China, primarily in Hong Kong, since 2020, and has continued to try to provide sensitive U.S. government information to Chinese authorities.

This week, officials say, he booked a flight to San Francisco, where he was arrested by federal agents at the airport.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.