Navy sailor sentenced to prison for sharing military info with China

by Tommy Grant

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:13 p.m. EST with additional information.

SAN DIEGO — A U.S. Navy sailor has been sentenced to just over two years in federal prison for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to a Chinese intelligence officer.

Wenheng Zhao, 26, who is also known as Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, was sentenced Monday to 27 months by a federal judge in Los Angeles. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of receiving a bribe in violation of his official duties. He was also fined $5,500.

His defense lawyer, Tarek Shawky, called Zhao “a dedicated serviceman with an exemplary service record before this incident.”

“He was the target of a sophisticated Chinese intelligence operation, and he made the mistake of sharing controlled, unclassified information with a foreign operative,” Shawky said. “He fully appreciates the severity of his actions and admitted guilt at an early stage of the proceedings.”

Zhao, based at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, north of Los Angeles, collected nearly $15,000 in bribes in 14 different payments from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information, photos and videos of involving Navy exercises, operations and facilities between August 2021 through at least May 2023, prosecutors said.

He held a U.S. security government clearance and underwent routine trainings on efforts by hostile nation states to acquire sensitive information, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The information included plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, which detailed the location and timing of naval force movements. The Chinese officer told Zhao the information was needed for maritime economic research to inform investment decisions, according to court documents.

The Chinese officer offered to pay Zhao bonuses for controlled and classified information, according to prosecutors.

Zhao used encrypted communications to transmit the information to the intelligence officer and destroyed the evidence to hide their relationship, prosecutors said.

“Mr. Zhao abdicated his oath to the United States and put American troops in harm’s way when he accessed and handed over sensitive information to China for a payout,” said Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office in a statement.

Zhao was one of two U.S. Navy sailors based in California who were charged last summer with providing sensitive military information to China.

The two sailors were charged with similar moves to provide sensitive intelligence to the Chinese. But they were separate cases, and it wasn’t clear if the two were courted or paid as part of a larger scheme.

Jinchao Wei, known as Patrick Wei, was assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex when he was arrested last August while boarding the ship. He is accused of providing detailed information on the weapons systems and aircraft aboard the Essex and other amphibious assault ships that act as small aircraft carriers.

He could receive a life sentence if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty and that case is ongoing.

U.S. officials have for years expressed concern about the espionage threat they say the Chinese government poses, bringing criminal cases in recent years against Beijing intelligence operatives who have stolen sensitive government and commercial information, including through illegal hacking.

U.S. officials said the cases exemplify China’s brazenness in trying to obtain insight into U.S. military operations.

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