Navy sailor that spied for China gets two years in prison

A former Navy sailor will spend a little more than two years in prison and pay $5,500 in fine after pleading guilty to selling sensitive information and documents to a Chinese spy.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, who is also known as Thomas Zhao, was sentenced by a federal judge to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay a $5,500 fine for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to and agent of the People’s Republic of China for which he was paid about $15,000.

Zhao, 26 pleaded guilty in October 2023 to one count of conspiring with the intelligence officer and one count of receiving a bribe.

“Mr. Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the U.S. military,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “Today, he is being held to account for those crimes. The Justice Department is committed to combatting the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine our nation’s security and holding accountable those who violate our laws as part of those efforts.” 

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Zhao worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme and held a security clearance, the DOJ said. A 2019 Navy photograph identifies Zhou as a Construction Electrician assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3, which is based at Naval Base Ventura County. It was there, the DOJ said, that Zhao took documents to transmit to a Chinese intelligence officer.

According to the original indictment under which Zhao pled guilty, from August 2021 to at least May 2023, Zhao sent information, photographs, and videos to a Chinese intelligence officer who had told the American sailor that he was a maritime economic researcher seeking the information for investment decisions, according to prosecutors.

Zhao pled guilty to sending the agent plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, which detailed the specific location and timing of Naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations, and logistics support.

Zhao also was accused of photographing electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

In all, the Chinese agents paid Zhao approximately $14,866, the indictment alleges.

Zhao transmitted plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system located in Okinawa, Japan.

He used encrypted communication methods to transmit the information and destroyed evidence of his relationship with the intelligence officer.

“Make no mistake, the PRC is engaged in an aggressive effort to undermine the national security of the U.S. and its partners,” said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “Zhao chose to betray the oath he took to our country and put others at risk by providing sensitive U.S. information to a PRC intelligence official. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly shown it will freely break any law or norm to achieve a perceived intelligence advantage.”

The FBI Los Angeles Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division and NCIS conducted the investigation with assistance from IRS-Criminal Investigation.

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