A U.S. Navy service member pleaded guilty today to federal felony offenses and admitted he transmitted sensitive U.S. military information to an intelligence officer from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in exchange for bribery payments.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, aka Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, California, pleaded guilty to conspiring with the intelligence officer and receiving a bribe.
Zhao, who worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme and held a U.S. security clearance, admitted he engaged in a corrupt scheme to collect and transmit sensitive U.S. military information to the intelligence officer in violation of his official duties.
“The intelligence services of the People’s Republic of China actively target clearance holders across the military, seeking to entice them with money to provide sensitive government information,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen. “When contacted by his co-conspirator, rather than reporting it to the Navy, the defendant chose greed over protecting the national security of the United States. He is now being held accountable for his crimes. To others tempted to put personal profit ahead of patriotic duty, know that we are committed to identifying you and bringing you to justice.”
“Protecting our country’s national security is of the utmost importance,” said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “Zhao’s guilty plea is an acknowledgement of the betrayal in selling sensitive military information to the Government of China. The FBI reminds all government officials to remain vigilant in reporting potential recruitment efforts by foreign actors, and we remain committed to standing with our partners to protect the U.S. from threats to our national security.”
Between August 2021 and at least May 2023, Zhao admitted receiving at least $14,866 in at least 14 separate bribes from the intelligence officer. In exchange for the illicit payments, Zhao surreptitiously collected and transmitted to the intelligence officer sensitive, non-public information regarding U.S. Navy operational security, military trainings and exercises and critical infrastructure. Zhao admitted he entered restricted military and naval installations to collect and record this information.
Zhao specifically admitted to transmitting 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 further admitted to using sophisticated encrypted communication methods to transmit the information, destroying evidence and concealing his relationship with the intelligence officer. Zhao’s conduct violated his official duties to protect such information and the oath he swore to protect the United States.
“Officer Zhao betrayed his country and the men and women of the U.S. Navy by accepting bribes from a foreign adversary,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California. “While he and the PRC officer he served took great pains to conceal their corrupt scheme, investigators were vigilant in uncovering this shameful plot. Today’s resolution, requiring Zhao to plead guilty to all charges against him, shows that we will act swiftly and decisively to protect our nation from those who seek to undermine our security.”
“The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) would like to once again thank our partners at the FBI and Department of Justice for their continued assistance in bringing this case to a quick resolution,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Angel Cruz of the NCIS Office of Special Projects. “The swift action by the Department of Justice in prosecuting this case should serve as a warning to anyone who attempt to compromise the Department of the Navy’s sensitive information or the security of our warfighters. If you or someone you know has knowledge of a potential compromise of sensitive military information, please contact your nearest NCIS or FBI office.”
Zhao pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2024. As a result of today’s guilty plea, Zhao faces a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison – five years for the conspiracy count and 15 years for the bribery charge. Zhao has been in custody since his arrest on Aug. 3.
The FBI Los Angeles Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division and NCIS conducted the investigation. IRS-Criminal Investigation provided substantial assistance.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Annamartine Salick, Sarah Gerdes, Christine Ro and Kathrynne Seiden for the Central District of California and Trial Attorney Adam Barry of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting the case, with assistance from Ryan Waters of the Asset Forfeiture Section.