An F-35B Lightning II launches from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Essex for the F-35B's first combat strike in an undisclosed location on Sept. 27, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman)
A former U.S. Navy sailor was sentenced
to 27 months in prison for providing the Chinese communist regime with sensitive U.S. military information in exchange for bribes, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner on Jan. 8 handed down the sentence to Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, who also goes by Thomas Zhao. Mr. Zhao was also ordered to pay a $5,500 fine.
The DOJ had sought a 37-month sentence for Mr. Zhao for obstructing the government’s investigation, according to Courthouse News Services
Mr. Zhao, 26, pleaded
guilty in October 2023 to one count of conspiring with a Chinese intelligence officer and one count of receiving a bribe. Mr. Zhao admitted he had “engaged in a corrupt scheme to collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information to the intelligence officer in violation of his official duties,” according to the DOJ.
Mr. Zhao admitted to receiving nearly $15,000 from a Chinese spy in 14 separate bribes between August 2021 and May 2023, the DOJ said.
He worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California. With a security clearance, Mr. Zhao had access to restricted military and naval facilities. He secretly gathered and transmitted sensitive information related to the U.S. Navy’s operational security, military training, and critical infrastructures to a Chinese intelligence officer.
The DOJ said that Mr. Zhao also admitted to passing on “plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise plans in the Pacific theatre, operational orders and electrical diagrams and blueprints” for the U.S. radar system in Okinawa, Japan.
“Mr. Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the U.S. military,” said Matthew G. Olsen, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, according to the DOJ press release.
“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,” Mr. Olsen added.
Larissa L. Knapp, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said in the press release, “The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly shown it will freely break any law or norm to achieve a perceived intelligence advantage.”
In addition, Mr. Zhao confessed to using “sophisticated encrypted communication methods to transmit the information,” destroying evidence and concealing his connection with the Chinese spy.
Mr. Zhao, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China, has been in custody without bail since his arrest on Aug. 3, 2023. He was detained alongside Wei Jinchao
, who also goes by Patrick Wei, an active-duty sailor on the amphibious assault ship the USS Essex.
Mr. Wei was indicted for conspiracy to send national defense information to a Chinese intelligence officer.
Between March 2022 and his arrest, Mr. Wei allegedly sent photographs and videos of the Essex, disclosed locations of multiple Navy ships, and provided details of the weapons of the Essex, according to a DOJ statement.
According to the DOJ, in June 2022, Mr. Wei also allegedly sent the Chinese officer about 30 technical and mechanical manuals consisting of export control warnings and details of the various operation systems on the Essex and other ships, including power, steering, aircraft and deck elevators, and damage and casualty controls.
In 2021, a former U.S. Navy sailor was sentenced
to 30 months in prison and fined $20,000 for conspiring with her husband to send sensitive military equipment to China illegally.
In 2019, former CIA officer
Jerry Chun Shing Lee received a 19-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide classified information to Chinese intelligence following his departure from the agency in 2010.
These cases highlight the Chinese regime’s intelligence efforts in the United States. In 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray said
the bureau investigated one new Chinese counterintelligence case every 10 hours. Mr. Wray also noted that the FBI had over 2,000 China-related counterintelligence investigations at the time.
Eva Fu contributed to this report.