A Navy sailor from Los Angeles County pleaded not guilty to federal charges of allegedly receiving bribes in exchange for sending sensitive military information — including plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region and diagrams and blueprints for a radar system — to a Chinese intelligence officer.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, was arrested on Wednesday, Aug. 2, and pleaded not guilty on Thursday, Aug. 3, to charges of conspiracy and receipt of a bribe by a public official. Zhao was working at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Zhao, who wore his military uniform during the arraignment hearing, has a Sept. 26 trial date before U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner. Zhao will remain behind bars pending the results of a detention hearing, prosecutors said.
A second sailor based in San Diego was arrested on similar charges, but it’s unclear if the cases are related or if the two seamen were in contact with the same Chinese officials. The indictment alleges that Zhao, who held a security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for disclosing non-public, sensitive military information. Federal prosecutors allege that beginning in August 2021 and continuing through at least May of this year, Zhao sent U.S. military information, photographs and videos to the Chinese intelligence officer. In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the intelligence officer operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, detailing the specific location and timing of Naval movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, according to the indictment. He also allegedly photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
Prosecutors contend Zhao obtained and transmitted details about the Navy’s operational security at the Naval Base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, including photographs and videos. The intelligence officer directed Zhao to conceal their relationship and to destroy evidence of the scheme, prosecutors allege. In exchange for the information Zhao provided — information he accessed as a result of his position within the U.S. Navy — the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao nearly $15,000, the indictment alleges.
“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California said in a statement. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”
Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said that by “accepting cash bribes from a hostile nation whose leaders are intent on stealing American secrets, Zhao betrayed his military oath and sold out his country while he brazenly put Americans and our servicemen at risk.”
Zhao’s alleged actions “are a reminder that American citizens with access to state secrets or intellectual property are being targeted by the Chinese government,” Alway added. “The FBI will continue to seek out such behavior with our partners and hold offenders accountable.” If he were to be convicted of the two counts in the indictment, Zhao would face up to 20 years in federal prison, prosecutors noted.
In the San Diego case, sailor Jinchao Wei, 22, is accused of accepting thousands of dollars from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for information concerning “the defense and weapon capabilities of U.S. Navy ships, potential vulnerabilities of these ships, and information related to ship movement,” according to a grand jury indictment. Prosecutors allege he also provided the officer with photographs of military hardware and details about an upcoming maritime warfare exercise involving U.S. Marines. Wei, who was assigned as a machinist’s mate on the USS Essex, was arrested Wednesday at Naval Base San Diego.
Randy Grossman, U.S attorney for the Southern District of California, said the indictment alleges that Wei was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer when his application to become a U.S. citizen was still pending.
“Wei admitted to his handler that he knew this activity would be viewed as spying and could affect his pending citizenship application,” Grossman said. “Whether it was greed or for some other reason, Wei allegedly chose to turn his back on his newly adopted country and enter a conspiracy with his Chinese handler.”
In a statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said the two Southern California sailors “stand accused of violating the commitments they made to protect the United States and betraying the public trust, to the benefit of the PRC government.”
FBI Assistant Director Suzanne Turner added, “These arrests are a reminder of the relentless, aggressive efforts of the People’s Republic of China to undermine our democracy and threaten those who defend it. The PRC compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security.”