In a grave breach of trust, a U.S. Navy petty officer has been condemned to a prison sentence for espionage.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao has been sentenced to 27 months in jail for passing sensitive military information to China.
Zhao, known also as Thomas Zhao, is a 26-year-old native of Monterey Park, California, who has been ordered to pay a $5,500 fine alongside his prison sentence. His actions spanned nearly two years and seriously violated his duty to safeguard national security. Zhao's guilty plea in October 2023 to charges of conspiracy and receiving a bribe marked the beginning of the end of his naval career.
Zhao operated out of Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, close to Los Angeles. He was involved in a conspiracy with a foreign power during his tenure, betraying his country's trust. From August 2021 to May 2023, Zhao received at least $14,866 in bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer.
The information he clandestinely transmitted was of a highly sensitive nature, including details of U.S. Navy operations, training, and infrastructures critical to national security. Zhao accessed restricted military areas to gather this intelligence, flagrantly abusing his position and clearance. The information passed on to the Chinese government included plans for maritime training exercises, operational orders, and blueprints for a radar system in Okinawa.
Zhao employed encrypted communication methods to send the information to his contacts, demonstrating a deliberate effort to escape detection. In his bid to cover his tracks, Zhao destroyed evidence and concealed his illicit relationship with the Chinese intelligence officer. The severity of his actions was underscored by the collaborative efforts of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in conducting the investigation.
The case against Zhao was bolstered by significant assistance from the IRS-Criminal Investigation. His removal from the military and subsequent sentencing to federal prison underscores the gravity of his offenses. In a powerful statement, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen expressed the nation's outrage at Zhao's betrayal.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen commented on the severity of Zhao's actions and the implications for national security:
Mr. Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the U.S. military. 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.
The inter-agency collaboration was a testament to the coordinated effort by U.S. law enforcement to prosecute such critical cases. The Justice Department, through its representatives, has reaffirmed its dedication to thwarting any actions by the Chinese government that would compromise U.S. national security. Zhao's case serves as a warning to anyone considering compromising the nation's secrets.
U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada condemned Zhao's actions, emphasizing the disgrace he brought upon himself by accepting bribes from an adversary. Estrada highlighted the swift action taken by his office to address threats to national security. Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI underscored the aggressive tactics employed by the People's Republic of China to undermine U.S. national security.
Knapp further condemned Zhao's choices and highlighted the broader context of China's intelligence activities:
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. Today’s sentencing demonstrates, yet again, the inability of China’s Intelligence Services to prevent the FBI and our vital partners from apprehending and prosecuting the spies China recruits.
Acting Special Agent in Charge Angel Cruz of the NCIS expressed gratitude for the FBI and DOJ's assistance in the investigation. Cruz's statement reaffirms the commitment to pursuing those who attempt to compromise U.S. national security information.
A U.S. Navy Petty Officer named Wenheng Zhao has been sentenced to 27 months in prison for engaging in espionage and passing sensitive military information to China. Zhao, who served at the Naval Base Ventura County in California, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for classified data, including U.S. Navy operations and radar system blueprints.
Despite using encrypted communications and attempting to destroy evidence, Zhao was caught through a joint investigation by the FBI and NCIS, with additional support from the IRS-Criminal Investigation.
High-ranking officials from the Justice Department and the FBI have condemned Zhao's actions, stressing the threat posed by China's intelligence-gathering efforts and the importance of holding such individuals accountable. Zhao's conviction is intended to deter others who might consider betraying U.S. national security.