Wednesday, January 10, 2024

U.S. Navy Sailor Sentenced To More Than 2 Years In Prison For Transmitting Sensitive U.S. Military Information To Chinese Intelligence Officer

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Central District of California released the below information: 

LOS ANGELES – A United States Navy service member was sentenced today to 27 months in federal prison for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to an intelligence officer from the People’s Republic of China. 

Wenheng Zhao (seen in the above U.S. Navy photo), 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, was sentenced by United States District Judge R. Gary Klausner, who also fined Zhao $5,500.

Zhao pleaded guilty in October 2023 to one count of conspiracy and one count of receiving a bribe in violation of his official duties.   

Zhao, who was stationed at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, held a U.S. security government clearance and underwent routine trainings on efforts by hostile nation states to acquire sensitive information.       

Between August 2021 and at least May 2023, Zhao received at least $14,866 in 14 separate bribe payments from the intelligence officer, who directed Zhao to surreptitious collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information and offered to pay Zhao bonuses for controlled and classified information.  

In exchange for the illicit payments, Zhao repeatedly entered restricted military and naval installations to secretly collect non-public information regarding U.S. Navy operational security, military trainings and exercises, and critical infrastructure. Zhao used encrypted communications to transmit that sensitive, non-public information to the intelligence officer. 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. 

Zhao attempted to conceal his crimes and his relationship with the intelligence officer by destroying evidence.

“Zhao betrayed his country and disgraced himself when he accepted bribes from an intelligence officer with the People’s Republic of China,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “As a result, he has now been removed from the military and will serve time in federal prison. Today’s sentence shows that my office will swiftly act to root out and punish those who seek to undermine our nation’s security.” 

“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.” 

“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. “Today's sentence should make it very clear that the FBI and our partners in the military and at the U.S. Attorney's Office will hold accountable anyone who succumbs to advances by the Chinese or any U.S. adversary, and in doing so, puts American secrets and American lives at risk.”

“Mr. Zhao betrayed his oath to the United States and deserves to be held fully accountable for accepting bribes in exchange for transmitting sensitive U.S. military information to an intelligence officer from the People’s Republic of China,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Angel Cruz of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Office of Special Projects. “NCIS will continue to leverage its unique law enforcement and counterintelligence authorities to vigorously pursue those who attempt to compromise our national security information. We are grateful to the FBI and Department of Justice for their substantial assistance to this lengthy investigation and greatly appreciate our continued partnership.”

The FBI’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division of the Los Angeles Field Office and NCIS conducted the investigation. IRS Criminal Investigation provided substantial assistance.

Assistant United States Attorneys Annamartine Salick, Sarah Gerdes, Christine Ro and Kathrynne Seiden of the Terrorism and Export Crimes Section prosecuted this case, with assistance from Assistant United States Attorney Ryan Waters of the Asset Forfeiture and Recovery Section. The Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the Department of Justice provided substantial assistance.

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