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    U.S. Navy Sailor Pleads Guilty to Transmitting Sensitive U.S. Military Information to Chinese Intelligence Officer

    A United States 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 in exchange for bribery payments.

    Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, of Monterey Park, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with the intelligence officer and one count of 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.

    Between August 2021 and at least May 2023, Zhao admitted receiving at least $14,866 in at least 14 separate bribe payments 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 United States Attorney Martin Estrada.  “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 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 coconspirator, 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.”

    “Mr. Zhao’s admission makes it clear that he abandoned the oath he swore to uphold by providing sensitive information to a U.S. adversary in exchange for cash,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Zhao put his fellow servicemen at risk when he yielded to overtures from the Chinese government, a nation actively targeting Americans who have access to state secrets. I’m proud of the strong partnerships and hard work that resulted in today’s successful outcome.”

    “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 A.D. Cruz Jr., Acting Special Agent in Charge of Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Office of Special Projects. The swift action by the Department of Justice in prosecuting this case should serve as a warning to anyone who willingly or through willful negligence attempt to compromise the Department of the Navy’s sensitive information or the security of our warfighters. No matter how long it takes, we will find you and hold you to account. To those still working to assist our adversaries, find your nearest NCIS or FBI office and cooperate before we come for you.”

    Zhao pleaded guilty before United States District Judge R. Gary Klausner, who scheduled a January 8, 2024, sentencing hearing. As a result of today’s guilty pleas, Zhao faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison – five years for the conspiracy count and 15 years for the bribery charge. Zhao has been in custody since his arrest on August 3.

    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 are prosecuting this case, with assistance from Ryan Waters of the Asset Forfeiture and Recovery Section. The Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the Department of Justice is providing substantial assistance.



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