A former Army sergeant who was last assigned at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington and had access to top secret documents was arrested Oct. 6, 2023, on charges of attempting to deliver national defense information to China, the Justice Department said. (Abner Guzman/U.S. Air Force)
Former Army Sgt. Joseph Schmidt spent his more than three years since leaving the service trying to hand over U.S. defense documents to the Chinese and work for their military or intelligence forces, according to federal officials.
He later switched to attempting to give to those documents to communist-backed publications and find work with companies that he believed were aligned with the Chinese government.
Schmidt, 29, is charged with stealing those military secrets from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and will face trial in Seattle, the Justice Department confirmed Wednesday.
His efforts to attract Chinese interest in the stolen documents ended Oct. 6 when as he arrived on a flight from Hong Kong, where he had been living for most of the past two years.
Schmidt was stationed at Lewis-McChord from January 2015 to January 2020. His primary assignment was with the 109th Military Intelligence Battalion as a team leader in the human intelligence unit. He left the Army a month later.
The joint Army-Air Force base is home to I Corps, which the Army calls its “operational headquarters in the Indo-Pacific region,” an area that includes China.
Schmidt was arraigned last week in federal court in San Francisco on two felony counts — retention of national defense information and attempt to deliver national defense information. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.
At a court hearing Wednesday, Schmidt agreed to be transported to Seattle for the remainder of proceedings and likely trial, said Emily Langlie, public affairs officer for the Justice Department in Seattle.
The U.S. Marshals Service operates its own aircraft to transport high-profile defendants throughout the country. The process of getting Schmidt from San Francisco to Seattle could take up to a few weeks, Langlie said.
After leaving the Army in February 2020, Schmidt attempted for months to contact Chinese officials to interest them in the documents and himself, according to the FBI report included in the former soldier’s indictment.
Schmidt boasted in a message that the FBI intercepted that he could bring the skills that he learned from the Army at Lewis-McChord to assist the Chinese military and intelligence forces.
“My experience includes training in interrogation, running sources as a spy handler, surveillance detection, and other advanced psychological operation strategies,” he wrote in one email.
At one point, Schmidt attempted to defect to the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, asking for a face-to-face meeting with intelligence officers he believed were at the facility. The FBI report on Schmidt does not say if a meeting took place.
Schmidt moved to China, lived in Hong Kong and visited Beijing, according to the FBI. He used Google to look up subject lines such as “soldier defect,” “looking for a subreddit about spy stuff,” and “What Do Real Spies Do and How are they Recruited.” He also looked up countries that didn’t have extradition treaties with the United States.
Schmidt eventually received a work permit in Hong Kong, but his attempts to parlay his information into some more permanent job or position moved from direct requests to Chinese officials to media and businesses.
He offered to turn over documents to communist-backed publications and share development secrets with businesses.
At one point, Schmidt offered to help a Chinese technology company reverse engineer a device that he had for accessing U.S. military intelligence computers.
The FBI reported Schmidt wrote a recent email to his sisters telling them he would not come back to the United States because he disagreed with “American policy” and was “limiting my contact with people who live in America.”
“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,” he wrote in the email.